Everyone knows Don Cherry, the colourful, tell-it-like-it-is hockey coach and media personality best known as host of “Coach’s Corner” on Hockey Night in Canada. Perhaps less known is that while Don coached the Boston Bruins in the 1970s, the Cherry family was also stickhandling their way through a major family crisis: 15 year-old Tim Cherry had been diagnosed with kidney disease.

Don says, “Timothy was playing and I noticed his feet were swelling. I thought it was new running shoes or getting hit by a puck or something.”

After a quick visit to the doctor, Tim went immediately on dialysis. Says Don, “I had no idea what dialysis even meant. When we were there, some fella said, ‘I’ve been on dialysis for five years,’ and I said, ‘That’s good’. We had no idea. Well we found out awful fast. You don’t really know anything about kidney disease or dialysis until it hits home.”

“Dialysis was tough on Tim,” notes Don, who admits he was scared and frustrated he didn’t know how to help his son. “I was a chicken, and I let Rose [his wife] handle it.”

“One day we were driving home and Rose said, ‘That’s it! No fifteen-year-old old boy should have to go through this. One of us is giving a kidney’.”

Sister Cindy ended up being Tim’s best match. “They were like twins. You couldn’t tell the difference,” their dad says.

Cindy, just 21 at the time, travelled down from Kingston where she was attending college for a family meeting in Boston. When the nephrologist asked Cindy if she was sure she wanted to be the donor, she responded, “Well there’s no question”. The doctor said, “Ahh don’t say that. Brothers and sisters have refused to do it.” Today Cindy jokes, “We aren’t a gushy, overly-emotional kind of family, but we do give kidneys.”

“I never realized the seriousness of it all until I saw both of them going down the aisle for surgery,” Don says.

After the transplant, Don remembers watching Tim’s colour come back. “I hadn’t seen the colour in over a year. To see his cheeks rosy red again was incredible. We thank God every day for it. That was almost 40 years ago and he’s going strong.”

Tim Cherry, today a successful hockey scout and film and video producer, says of his experience, “That first day I was on dialysis was one I will never forget. As I sank into the routine of being hooked up to a dialysis machine every other day, I started to wonder if I’d ever see light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how strong of mind or spirit you are, the grind of dialysis slowly starts to wear you down.  For me, it wasn’t ‘til the talk of a transplant that I started to get back some hope. When I got the transplant, I realized I didn’t have to go on that machine and that’s when I first appreciated the miracle of receiving the gift of life.”

What stands out for Cindy is “how quickly we rebounded. Tim and I broke a record for getting out of the hospital. I was out in seven days and my brother was out in 10 days.”

Cindy points out that the surgery was more difficult back then. “In those days they took a rib out, so I wasn’t a hero getting out of bed too quick. It was all worth it, 100 percent.”

Cindy and Don agree that more awareness, especially around organ donation and transplantation, is the key to making life easier for many kidney patients.

“When I think of Tim and how desperate we were driving back and forth in Boston, and we thought it was the end of the world, and our lives were over – like I said before. The Lord was good,” says Don Cherry.

Always in the kidney patient’s corner,  Don says, “Never give up. Try not to despair, keep plugging along. Never give up – that’s the name of the game.”