Couple mark anniversary of their gift of life at Surrey Memorial Hospital

SURREY — It’s been a year since a Surrey couple did the ultimate gift exchange.Gurjit Cheema needed a kidney, having battled kidney disease since being diagnosed at the age of 15, and her now-fiancé Shak Pawar had one to give.

The couple, both of whom were not a transplant match for each other, signed up as a pair exchange under BC Transplant. As Cheema received her new kidney from a living donor, Pawar became a living donor for another person.

"How the paired exchange works is, you’re paired up with someone else. Me and her were paired and then there was another couple paired. I wasn’t a match to her but I was a match to the other couple. That was last November," Pawar said modestly on Dec. 3 at Surrey Memorial Hospital, where he, Cheema and two other organ transplant recipients, Barbara Perceval and Rick Lidder, were set to deliver festive tins of popcorn to staff of the hospital.

Called "Operation Popcorn," organ transplant recipients with BC Transplant give their thanks each year to hospital staff who’ve helped them in getting the greatest gift of all: life. Transplant BC has been carrying out the affair for the past 23 years.

Both Cheema and Pawar said they wanted to give back to those who gave to them.

"It can be a selfless job that’s not recognized," Pawar said of the doctors, nurses and hospital workers who helped them with their transplant.

"I didn’t know anything about (organ transplant) until (I met) Gurjit, and then after that I found out, so it’s been an emotional roller-coaster. It’s a small gesture for us, but it might go a long way, just so they know we think of them."

The pair met nine years ago when they were introduced to each other through a mutual friend.

According to Cheema, dealing with kidney disease and knowing she would eventually need an organ transplant deterred her from wanting to get into a relationship at all.

"It was a big thing for me to even date someone because it was this big burden, having a disease. I didn’t know it was going to happen, I didn’t know what dialysis was, I didn’t know any of that," she admitted, emotionally.

"I was with him the whole time I was on dialysis. He knew how to set up the machine and everything. It was pretty handy having him around when it came to the transplant."

Last November, the couple recovered together at Vancouver General Hospital, both in separate beds."

We spent the holidays together making gingerbread houses and stuff," Cheema said cheerfully.

"And having Skype dates," Pawar said with a laugh.

They now live in Surrey, and together they are planning their upcoming August wedding.

Unlike Cheema and Pawar, Rick Lidder’s organ came from a deceased donor.

"I had a liver transplant in August 2012, so just over two years," he told the Now. For Lidder, his transplant came in the nick of time.

"I was hospitalized for about six weeks here at SMH and after that I started going through the process of being on the waiting list. My last week before my transplant, I didn’t even know if I was going to make it. They told me that, if by that weekend nothing came along, I wouldn’t be around," he said.

"I’m just grateful for all the hard work that the doctors and nurses do and it’s just unreal," Lidder said of being at the hospital again for Operation Popcorn. "More importantly, I think it’s just giving back, paying it forward."

Speaking of "paying it forward," each of the organ transplant recipients is now, of course, an organ donor themselves.

Cheema said she signed up when she was still a minor.

"I became an organ donor when I was 15," she said proudly. "Right when I was diagnosed I saw the form and filled it out, and my parents signed it and I sent it in. It’s one of those things that people don’t think of doing. It comes in the mail but you just say, ‘Oh I’ll get to it later.’ We’re big advocates for it and we’re always out there trying to raise awareness."

Barbara Perceval is her own miraculous success story, after receiving a "new" kidney 15 years ago. She said being able to give back to the staff at SMH is a small thanks compared to what she’s been given.

"I’ve lived life," she said, when asked what her kidney donation means to her.She said it means a lot "just for them to see the positive results of the transplant and how people go on to lead normal lives."

BC Transplant and Operation Popcorn hit 26 hospitals this year, giving away more than 100 tins of popcorn to hospital staff.

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