These questions were posed to 6’9” basketball sensation Dylan Kalambay and his family. At the tender age of 16, Kalambay was diagnosed with heart failure and underwent open-heart surgery. However, through an organ donor family, he was given a second chance at pursuing his dreams and living his life. His story is one of perseverance and determination, which led to the creation of Heart and Sole: The Dylan Kalambay Story. The documentary is directed by Michael Hamilton (Nash, I Am MLK Jr.), produced by Game Seven Media and presented by Canadian Blood Services in association with Ridley College. The doc takes the viewer on Kalambay’s journey through recovery, academics, basketball and coming to terms with his new path in life and being an organ recipient.
In 2020, during his eleventh year at Ridley College, Kalambay suffered from a persistent cough that led to respiratory issues. Over time, the cough worsened. Then during a vital check with nurses, his heart rate soared to an astronomical 200 beats per minute while in a resting state. He was rushed to the hospital, and Kalambay’s life took a turn he could have never expected. However, he was inspired by and tapped into those close to him to make it through. “My biggest support was from my parents and siblings. I think that just knowing that they were with me and always rooting for me and praying for me was something that really made me feel loved. It made me feel like I had to keep going for their sake, not just mine,” he says. And it was their love that sustained him and pushed him through some of the most difficult times of his life.
While discussing Kalambay’s ordeal, I asked him three words to describe his journey. And although he paused to collect his thoughts, his response flowed fluidly. Painful, inspiring and joyful. Painful would be the most obvious, but one wouldn’t think inspiring and joyful would be far behind. In terms of inspiration, Kalambay reflects on the reactions from friends, family and parents. How everyone has been genuinely touched by his story and inspired by him along the way. He says, “I think that many of my younger cousins look up to me now because it's something that I was able to go through. I can still play basketball, and I'm still playing at a high level. Hopefully, I can inspire them and other people who could be going through the same thing to never give up on their dream and joy.” And let’s not forget how the old but true adage of ‘laughter is the best medicine’ can be a reciprocal summary of gratification and joy. “With all the pain that did come from the situation, I think I found a lot of joy in it as well,” says Kalambay. “Having friends and family come visit was some of the best moments ever because we had some of the best laughs. My being around them and laughing, and being in a laughing and loving environment, helped me find the motivation to get better. Them making me laugh actually did subconsciously make me feel a little bit better about the situation.”
Hearing about Kalambay’s trials and tribulations is difficult to digest. To go through such a life-altering event at the beginning of your teen years can be devastating. Especially as an elite basketball player who has played for Canada Basketball's U16 national team and for the highly ranked AAU basketball club Canada Elite. But the other facet of Kalambay’s ordeal weighs in heavily on organ donation and how it’s perceived within the Black community.
According to the 2010 public Ipsos Reid survey, Views Toward Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation, in Canada, women (72%) are more likely than men (66%) to strongly approve of organ and tissue donation. The same is true for those who describe their ethnicity as Canadian (73%) or European (73%) compared to those who are a visible minority (47%).
One reason that may rank high on the list for those percentages may be the deep-rooted mistrust of the Canadian healthcare system in the Black community. It’s not a secret how Black lives fall under widespread disparities due to systemic anti-Black racism. But Kalambay urges us to take another look at the all-around good organ donation can provide for those in need. Kalambay explains, “There are so many lives that have been saved. If someone is an organ donor, they can save about eight lives just from that alone. I think that's greatly overlooked because many people think, well, I can donate a kidney while I'm still alive. But after that, if you do pass on, maybe you can save someone with a heart, liver, kidneys and other organs. So I feel that the Black community should be more open to potentially becoming an organ donor because it can help other people in our community, and I think it's something that would help other families as well. It's a scary thing, but it’s greatly appreciated if you are courageous enough to do something like that.”
Coming to terms with how someone lost their life for you to continue living yours can be a little complex. Kalambay would like to meet his donor’s family, but right now, he’s in the process of putting pen to paper to collect his thoughts. And while his viewpoint of the ‘perfect college’ has changed, he knows what he wants. He’s simply after a college where he can thrive and play basketball. So the future Communications (or Communications Officer) major is back on track—enjoying life with his loved ones, hunkering down with his studies and perfecting his basketball skills. But know that this young man doesn’t take anything for granted. His parting words certainly hit home. “It sounds a bit cliche, but never take your life for granted—especially all the little things you have. Being able to wake up and say that you're in good health is a blessing. And I think that's something that many people overlook a lot of the time. Just being able to spend time with your loved ones as well. You should never take that for granted.”