Three years ago, Debra Matwychuk started a photography project called Photos for Kidneys after her husband, JR, successfully received a kidney donation from a longtime friend. Matwychuk features people in need of and who have received kidney transplants, and living donors. She doesn’t charge for the portraits and hopes the project will raise awareness, encourage people to sign up to be an organ donor, and to consider living donation. More than 50 people have been photographed for the project so far and Matwychuk is looking for more subjects to feature on her website and Instagram page. While she started the Photos for Kidneys project in Vancouver, Matwychuk says her heart will always be in Alberta because it’s where she grew up so she and her husband decided to build a second home south of Calgary to be closer to family.
What is the Photos for Kidneys project and how did it come to be?
I was looking for a topic for a personal photography project around the time my husband was diagnosed with end stage renal disease in 2018. Without a transplant in the near future, he would need to start dialysis which is a grueling lifestyle. It started with just one portrait of him. We kept hearing about another guy from Vancouver who also needed a donor, Stephen Gillis. He was always in the news because his PeeWee hockey team had organized a campaign to find him a donor. We met him quite by accident at the Kidney Clinic Vancouver General Hospital and he became my second subject. I then made some friends at BC Transplant and the Kidney Foundation and the project picked up momentum.
What message do you hope to send with your photo project?
The project first started as a vehicle to just simply raise awareness for the thousands of people waiting for transplants and to encourage people to complete the simple act of signing their donor cards. But it quickly became about much more than that. I just felt very honoured that so many people trusted me with their stories and their images. And then there is the living donation aspect — meeting people who passionately wanted to donate kidneys to friends, family, and even complete strangers was fascinating and inspiring. It’s very important to raise awareness for kidney donation because there are still and always will be individuals who are really suffering. Dialysis is not a fun way of life. It only takes two minutes to log in and sign your donor card. Also, live kidney donation is very successful and very safe. We have world class doctors in Canada.
Can you tell us a bit about your husband JR and his donor Greg?
From one man’s journey down a strange and frightening road, we are able to see hope and lives transformed both for recipients as well as donors. JR and Greg played hockey together for 25 years. Greg was JR’s right-winger. They were always friends on and off the ice, but since the surgery we have all become very close. We even went to Boston in February of 2019 to watch an NHL game, where we just happened to be sitting next to a young woman with a sign that she needed a kidney. We’ve kept in touch with her but sadly, she has still not received a transplant. The US has a very different standard of care than we have here.
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