This Cree pastor needed a kidney. His friend offered one of his own

Gordon Petawabano, left, and Paul Racine have been friends and fellow pastors for more than 20 years. When Petawabano was diagnosed with kidney failure, Racine offered to be a live donor.  (Submitted by Paul Racine - image credit)
Gordon Petawabano, left, and Paul Racine have been friends and fellow pastors for more than 20 years. When Petawabano was diagnosed with kidney failure, Racine offered to be a live donor. (Submitted by Paul Racine - image credit)

Gordon Petawabano and Paul Racine have been friends and colleagues for over 20 years, serving the Cree community as pastors in Mistissini, Que.

They share a passion of connecting with youth through faith and helped build a summer bible camp called Sonrise Camp.

All that was put on pause when doctors first told Petawabano, who is Cree, that his kidney was failing.

"They told me that you need to be on dialysis about two years ago … I had to step down from my job in Mistissini because … I had to be here in Montreal for treatment," Petawabano said.

The last three years were spent with countless hospital visits and dialysis treatment three to four times a week. It was tiring and often depressing, Petawabano said.

"I had a hard time accepting it first. I said: '[God] why are you doing this to me?" he said.

Paul Racine, left and Gordon Petawabano, right, have been friends and fellow pastors for more than 20 years. When Petawabano was diagnosed with kidney failure, Racine offered to me a live donor.
Paul Racine, left and Gordon Petawabano, right, have been friends and fellow pastors for more than 20 years. When Petawabano was diagnosed with kidney failure, Racine offered to me a live donor.

Racine and Petawabano in the hospital before the kidney transplant. (Submitted by Mary Jane Petawabano)

For Racine, watching his friend's health and his faith deteriorate was hard.

"He went through a really dark period struggling to understand his own relationship with the Lord while this was happening," said Racine, who is from Ottawa.

Petawabano was put on a waitlist for a kidney donation.

'I need you'

One night last summer during the Sonrise camp, Racine was unable to fall asleep knowing his friend was in the hospital instead of running the camp.

Racine stepped out from his cabin.

"I prayed and thought about it. Then I went outside with my phone trying to find a signal for the internet," said Racine.

He Googled how old one can be to be a living donor. Racine, who is 67, discovered the age is 75.

After talking with his own wife and sons, Racine phoned Petawabano to tell him he wanted to donate his kidney.

Petawabano and his family were shocked at the offer.

"I told him, 'your people and your kids need you,'" Petawabanos said.

"[He] told me, 'Gordon, we worked together for 20 years now, I need you,'" he added.

Petawabano and Racine help train youth leaders and volunteers to run Sonrise Camp, a bible camp for youth ages 5 and up.
Petawabano and Racine help train youth leaders and volunteers to run Sonrise Camp, a bible camp for youth ages 5 and up.

Petawabano and Racine help train youth leaders and volunteers to run Sonrise Camp, a bible camp for youth ages five and up. (Submitted by Paul Racine)

Racine knew his blood type made him a universal donor. After talking with both families, they decided to pursue the kidney transplant.

For a year, both men went through many tests each month.

Leading up to the surgery, Racine started to struggle with fears of not living through it.

"I hadn't been in a hospital since I was a child. I just thought to myself, 'let's just enjoy the ride,'" said Racine.

While prepping for surgery, Racine turned to humour to manage his fears, telling the hospital team, "I'm here for a tummy tuck," adding they all burst into laughter.

The surgery was a success for both men.

"The kidney started on its own. That's a miracle in itself, [the doctor] said to me," Petawabano said. "Everything was working within two minutes."

Paul Racine getting ready for surgery on June 4.
Paul Racine getting ready for surgery on June 4.

Racine getting ready for surgery on June 4. (Submitted by Mary Jane Petawabano)

Finding hope in healing 

Both men have been recovering differently. Racine experienced soreness and his energy is slowly going back to normal.

Petawabano has been more energetic than before.

"My children and my wife are telling me [to] slow down because I walk seven to eight kilometres a day," Petawabano said, who before dialysis was walking up to 15 kilometres a day.

The whole experience has brought the two men closer.

"I feel a new dimension in our relationship," said Racine.

For Petawabano, not only has his physical strength been renewed, but also his faith.

"First I blamed [God], now I thank him. I have a better chance of [connecting with people] because I understand what they go through," said Petawabano.

Petawabano plans to share his story with others who also struggle with diabetes and kidney failure.

The two pastors are already planning this year's Sonrise Camp.

"[Our goal] is helping [youth] in their stories to find healing," said Racine.

"And in that healing, find hope. In that hope, find a renewed sense of purpose and passion for what it is they love to do."

Petawabano plans to move back to Mistissini, where he will return to work as an assistant pastor at his local church.

"The work that I do, I am more motivated than ever." said Petawabano.