Gulwinder Sandhu has lived at the mercy of hemodialysis three days a week for the last five and a half years. That is, until a stranger in Guelph offered to donate her kidney.
Bethany Pate didn’t know Sandhu when she first learned of his health struggles from a mutual friend. While most people would probably just express their sympathies, Pate’s first instinct was to see if she could donate one of her own kidneys.
The 46-year-old was tested in March 2022, and by May had learned she was a match for the Brantford resident.
When his family of five heard the news, Sandhu’s daughter Simran said they were huddled together on the couch, crying.
“Like, who is this person? We’ve never heard of her, we’ve never met her. And we’re a mess over a stranger,” Simran said. “It meant more than words can express, because family doesn’t even do this much for you these days.”
But he wasn’t well enough for a transplant just yet.
“He had a few complications to overcome,” Pate said, including the partial amputation of his right foot, which further delayed the procedure.
Once the doctors gave the OK, the surgery went ahead on May 23 of this year at the St. Joseph Transplant Clinic in Hamilton.
The pair only met for the first time a week before the surgery, during a pre-op appointment, where Pate looked in his eyes and instantly knew she was doing the right thing.
“He stood up and gave me a hug, and said I’ve been waiting for you. I prayed to God and God sent you,” she said.
A few days later, they met again at another appointment, where he asked why she was doing this for him.
“I said because, what if it were my dad, what if it were my husband? I’d be begging people to get tested,” she said. “And so I was excited. He’s so sweet. The whole family is lovely.”
Some might be deterred, or at least unnerved, by the thought of going under the knife and losing an organ for a complete stranger, but not Pate.
“I wasn’t scared,” she said. “I just wanted it to work for him.”
Before going on dialysis, 55-year-old Gulwinder was a long-haul truck driver, and liked to be on the move. But as a diabetic, the amount of sitting required did a number on his blood sugar, his daughter Simran explained.
“And I guess it just started eating away at his kidneys,” she said.
Then in 2017, he was diagnosed with pneumonia. At one point, it became so bad he couldn’t breathe, and they called an ambulance. But it turned out not to be pneumonia at all: it was a heart blockage.
Over the next few months, he had various tests performed, such as angiograms and angioplasty. But these lowered his kidney function further. He had his bypass in February 2018 and started dialysis immediately after.
At 6' 2" tall, he weighed over 200 lbs; but since then he’s lost more than 20 lbs, and is “trembling and shaking all the time,” Simran said.
“Even the smallest of things, he physically isn’t able to do anything,” she said.
Gulwinder has always loved to sing, and even released an album in India years ago; but he hasn’t been able to sing much, either, as his voice began to falter.
Being on dialysis also means he hasn’t been able to work in more than five years.
“He’s never been a homebody. Even as kids growing up, there wasn’t a day or weekend that something wasn’t planned,” Simran said. “So it was a huge heartbreak for him.”
Now, he’s looking forward to getting back to his life and doing the things he loves – working, singing and spending time with his family.
“In the two weeks that he’s had his kidney, I’ve already noticed such a change in his voice, and he’s back at it,” Simran said. “This guy gets to finally live his 50s and do what he’s always been wanting to do.”
The family used to make regular trips to India once a year to visit family, and they haven’t been able to since he started dialysis.
“The day of his surgery, he’s like, oh, can we book flights now?” Simran said. “So he’s looking forward to that. We’re probably gonna do it twice a year now.”
But the Sadhu and Pate families are bonded for life now, too.
When Pate’s sister came down from North Bay to pick her up for the surgery, she was able to meet the family as well.
When Pate woke up from surgery, she said she hoped she went to do something like shopping rather than waiting at the hospital the whole time.
But she had spent the whole day with his family.
“They still keep in touch. It just really brought us two families together,” she said.
“Every day, he sends me a good morning (text). He calls me his sister and he’s my brother, and he’ll say ‘good morning, my dear sister, how did you sleep?’ and then I get one before I go to bed,” Pate said.
When Gulwinder learned the youngest of her three children was sick, he reached out throughout the day for regular updates, asking how he was doing and if they could do anything to help.
“They even came over and brought a huge feast,” she said.
“I love them. I never thought… you don’t fall in love with people you just meet, like total strangers, but I feel totally connected to this family.”
Now, it’s Pate’s mission to raise awareness about living organ donation.
“You can live the rest of your natural life with one kidney with no issues,” she said. “It sucks to go through, but the benefits far outweigh any physical pain I have.”
For Gulwinder, the road to recovery is a long one, but things are headed in the right direction, and he’s getting better every day.
“May 23 is the first day I got my life back,” Gulwinder said.