Edmonton doctors are celebrating 50 years of a procedure that helps treat those with chronic kidney failure, something that if diagnosed, used to mean imminent death for a patient.

It was 50 years ago this week, that the first patient in Canada received hemodialysis at the University of Alberta Hospital.

Before then, there had been no treatment options for those with chronic renal or kidney failure in Canada – only a short-term dialysis that could last no more than a few weeks.

“We had been exposed to a lot of patients who died because there was no treatment available,” said Dr. Ray Ulan, who helped establish the hemodialysis program in Edmonton, the first such program in Canada.

At the time, hemodialysis was able to extend a patient’s life by five years.

“This was the game-breaker. This allowed all these people to come forth, be considered by therapy,” Ulan said. “We knew it worked. We had a new way to achieve repeated dialysis with new blood access. There was optimism.”

But the process wasn’t perfect.

“It was an all-consuming time being on dialysis. One day on dialysis, one day in bed at home and that’s how it went,” said former dialysis patient Freda Ainley.

“Dialysis was very primitive then,” said Wayne Gaalaas, a Camrose man, who was the first patient in Alberta to take a dialysis machine home.

Since then, technological advances have helped ensure those with failing kidneys can live longer and fuller lives.

“Dialysis started really from a basic form of treatment and over the years it’s been refined, improved and it’s been a very exciting time to see all these changes,” Ulan said.

“This has meant more comfortable treatment for patients, better treatment for patient, better survival and in the long-run cheaper.”

Gaalaas was the first patient in Alberta to take a dialysis machine home back in 1971. Gaalaas says severe strep throat damaged his kidneys and home dialysis changed his life.

“I could dialyze when I wanted to. It just gives you freedom and doing your own thing, no one is around it’s just myself and my wife,” he said.

“Freedom was a big thing. You weren’t off dialysis but you did have time to do many other things.”

Ainley is the longest living kidney transplant recipient in the Edmonton area.

She says without the treatment, she may not have lived to have the transplant.

“I was a very sick lady and I badly needed the dialysis to cleanse my blood,” Ainley said.

“I was very sick, couldn’t keep anything in because the poison in my body was so high because when your kidneys aren’t working, it doesn’t filter out the bad stuff.”

A piece of the first hemodialysis machine was taken from the Royal Alberta Museum and placed next to today’s technology on Wednesday, as doctors marked the 50-year anniversary of hemodialysis in Canada.

“The new is more efficient, it does things in a way that is more comfortable for the patient, it’s done over a shorter period of time, it’s flexible, and it’s easier for the staff to use,” Ulan said,

Kidney disease is caused by conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and urinary tract obstruction.

Hemodialysis cleanses patients' blood. The dialysis unit, now named after Dr. Ulan, helps 1,100 patients in northern Alberta.

Dr. Kailash Jindal, the medical lead for The Northern Alberta Renal Program says the goal for the next 50 years is prevention.

“The biggest hope to me is prevention in terms of preventing people from getting kidney failure. We can identify easily people who are at high risk of kidney failure,” Jindal said.

“We are working with primary care networks, diabetes programs, hypertension, and laboratory services in Alberta. We are testing if we identify people who have this, and then inform their family physician that their patient could be at high risk for this and suggest treatment or provide some consultation so they don’t end up requiring dialysis.”

Ainley and Gaalas both say they’re proud to be a part of the program’s history, and happy to celebrate in the 50-year milestone.

“There’s so much in 50 years that’s happened, it’s unbelievable,” Gaalaas said. “It’s advanced so rapidly.”

About 40,000 Canadians rely on dialysis treatment each year.

With files from Carmen Leibel