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Baird aide goes public with search for kidney donor

On Parliament Hill, Garry Keller is known as the friendly, somewhat serious, bespectacled young man who has worked his way up from an MP's aide to chief of staff to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird.

Few know, however, that every night the 35-year-old races home from work and hooks himself up to a dialysis machine before he goes to sleep. And for nine hours 17 litres of fluid circulates through his body, cleaning out toxins and doing what his kidneys cannot do.

Mr. Keller has been doing this since he turned 28 and was diagnosed with renal failure. For nearly seven years he's been waiting for a kidney transplant from a deceased donor – but his young age and rare blood type (B) are working against him. Most people in Ottawa are on such waiting lists for about four years.

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Several weeks ago, Mr. Keller contracted a virus that required hospitalization. It was then that he received some bad news. He was told that his body couldn't take much more dialysis and that he should start seriously looking for a living donor.

So, Mr. Keller is about to send a letter to friends and family. "Don't freak out," he will write. "I am not dying. ... Here is the current situation and if you want to help here is how you go about doing it."

The current situation is that he needs as many people as possible to be tested to see if they would be a possible match. It's an easy process, he says. First, one contacts the donor unit at the Ottawa Hospital and it starts with a simple blood test.

So far, Mr. Keller has resisted talking about his disease. "[Dialysis has] worked so far and I have been able to maintain a standard of living and work," he told The Globe on Tuesday. "And I guess that's been part of my reluctance to be very public about this. ... I don't want to be defined by this."

And he wasn't.

In 2007, for example, as press secretary Mr. Baird, who was then environment minister, Mr. Keller loaded up his 50-pound portable dialysis machine, his bottles of fluid and boarded a plane for the Bali conference on climate change. He also had a "bunch of stuff" shipped to the hotel there so that he could work for his boss by day and do the dialysis every night.

"But as time has gone on – especially getting married and talking to the doctors – it really kind of refocuses your attention," he said, referring to his September nuptials.

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Now he wants to get well.

In May of 2005, Mr. Keller was diagnosed with kidney disease. He had been working on the Hill as an assistant to Alberta Conservative MP John Williams, an expert on public accounts.

The young aide lost 40 pounds without trying and when he almost passed out getting ready for work one morning, he decided it was time to see a doctor. No one knows what caused the renal failure but there is a theory that frequent episodes with strep throat as a child may have damaged the organs, he said.

Mr. Keller has tried close family members to see if they are matches but said issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes have disqualified them.

Coincidentally, his appeal comes on the heels of a front-page feature in The Globe about a woman in Edmonton [also Mr. Keller's hometown] who has decided to donate her kidney to a stranger. She is part of an initiative called the Living Donor Paired Exchange Program in which people give up their kidneys for purely "altruistic reasons."

Mr. Keller read the article with interest.

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"Publicity, I think, is the best possible thing," he said. "Not just for me. ... There are more people than you think waiting for organ donation. People need to start signing their organ donation cards. ... The more attention people bring to this the more likely people are to sign their organ donation card."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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