For Andre Arlain, the decision was a no-brainer: give a kidney to his high school best friend or watch his health continue to slip away.
“What were my options? Not get tested … and his kidneys fail because dialysis isn’t working and I end up being a pallbearer at the funeral,” Arlain said.
“That was just not an option for me.”
Arlain played seven CFL seasons for Calgary and Winnipeg between 1998 and 2004 and was a member of the Stampeders’ 1998 Grey Cup-winning team. He finished his career with 22 receptions for 271 yards but also had 100 special teams tackles in his career.
Arlain still lives in Calgary but when flew home to Hamilton for a visit two summers ago, he noticed the effects of his friend’s failing health.
Mike Ferrante, Arlain’s buddy from Cardinal Newman Catholic Secondary School, had been diagnosed with Fabry disease — a rare genetic disorder causing fats to accumulate in blood vessels – 13 years ago, but the diagnosis didn’t mean much to Arlain then.
He knew the Ferrante might need dialysis because his kidneys could fail at some point, but not seeing the father of two on a day-to-day basis meant he didn’t know how bad it was.
“One day could have been one month, one year, 10 years,” Arlain said. “I didn’t really think much about it because he was fine.”
But during this visit, Ferrante looked different. His colour was off; he was swollen. The close-knit group of friends started talking about getting tested to see if they were a match.
That testing was something Marianne Ferrante, Mike’s wife, and her mom had already gone through only to find out neither woman could donate due to complications.
Around the same time, Ferrante’s health had taken a turn for the worse, and Marianne, 38, said his doctor told her she should get out there and start calling people she knew to find a donor.
She broached the subject with Mike’s pals.
“You don’t want to ask a lot,” she said, noting she put the idea out there so people knew of the situation. “I’m not going to pressure people.”
Fast forward to October. Mike was not responding well to dialysis, and he and Marianne were at a pre-op appointment to have a shunt put in his arm. On their drive home, a call came through from the transplant coordinator letting them know Arlain was coming for surgery in a matter of weeks and Mike would have a new kidney.
“We were completely shocked,” Marianne said, noting they were both in tears. “I was not expecting that call to happen like that, just out of nowhere.”
The same goes for Arlain, who received the call letting him know he was a match out of the blue just after he had finished running on the treadmill.
Marianne said they phoned Arlain right away and he told them there was no reason to thank him.
“My biggest worry was, Mike’s my age … he’s got young kids, and I know how busy that lifestyle is,” he said. “I was always worried about him because mentally, I just couldn’t believe what he would have to go through.”
As for the surgery itself, Arlain said it wasn’t too big a shock to him given he’d been under before for athletic injuries but he was not prepared for the pain he would be in the next day and how limited his movement would be. After just over a week of recovery, Arlain said he was cleared to travel and headed back to Calgary.
For Mike, the incision was “nothing” because he had gone in feeling “absolutely horrible,” Marianne said.
She wants to get the message out that even signing a donor card can make a big difference in the most desperate moments of a family’s life.
Less than six months later, and the difference in Mike is like “night and day,” Marianne noted.
“It’s really unbelievable,” she added.
If the situation had not hit so close for him, Arlain said he’s not sure if he would have been tested.
“Mike’s one of my best friends in the world,” he said. “We are kind of like family because my friend group back home is really tight.”
That made the decision to see if he was a match easy, he said.
“People are just scared, but if your brother or sister or mom or dad or one of your kids needed a kidney, would you not at least get screened to find out?”