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Vicars Grad Shares His Second Chance

Mat Cardinal’s a bit obsessed with second chances. After all, he’s had two of his own: a second chance at a good career and a second chance at life itself.

We talked to Mat in April 2024 just before he and his hit country music band The Prairie States held a benefit concert, called Second Chance Songs, to help the University of Alberta Transplant Program give other Canadians second chances of their own.

Love good music and a good cause? Pick up your tickets to Second Chance Songs!

Mat Cardinal was near the end of his massage therapy education at Vicars School of Massage Therapy when Covid hit. The class of 2020 graduated a bit later than planned. Most went on to establish their careers as massage therapists. For Mat, though, the path was more challenging.

By the time Mat was 10, he had developed kidney disease, something he shared with his older brother Eli. To cope, the brothers focused on songwriting and making music together. But the disease worsened for both of them. Mat was in his early 20s in 2012 when his kidneys failed, and he spent a year on dialysis.

Mat’s father Robert turned out to be a match for Mat for a living kidney donor transplant through the University of Alberta’s Transplant Program. While Mat got his second chance, Eli, who had developed severe anemia after years of chemo to treat his kidney disease, passed away in 2014. After Eli’s death, Mat vowed to keep writing and playing music. In 2017, he formed a band with some good friends called The Prairie States.

Because Mat has to take immunosuppression medications for the rest of his life, during the pandemic he was under strict orders from his medical team to not leave his house.

“I was very happy about graduating from Vicars, but I wasn’t able to continue being a massage therapist because of my kidney transplant,” says Mat. “I couldn’t risk getting Covid.”

Music became even more important in Mat’s life while he was housebound, and the band’s recognition grew. Mat got vaccinated as soon as he could and, as the pandemic was winding down, the band’s fortunes took off. They were signed to a label and a new path opened up for Mat.

The band’s name, The Prairie States comes from a Walt Whitman poem about bringing the old country into the new, something Mat is praised for in his songwriting and singing. Mat has been honoured by the Edmonton Arts Council, and the band has won 11 Country Music Alberta awards, including 2023 top group/duo. If you listen to country, you’ll already know them from their songs “Waiting On You,” which hit #28 on Canadian country radio, or their breakout single “Rebel Phase.”

“Last year, we went to Nashville for a song-writing workshop with top names in the business which led to our fourth album, ‘Trouble Is,’ released this year,” Mat explains.

The Prairie States’ success, along with the kidney transplant that made it all possible, is the inspiration for the fundraiser when the band played at Edmonton’s Cook County Saloon. Cook County’s owners are big supporters of the band. Popular Edmonton brewery Sea Change had created a special “Second Chance” lager for the event. All proceeds from the evening will go to the University of Alberta Transplant Program.

“For such a long time, when I was a kid, I was just in survival mode,” says Mat. “I wasn’t really living because there were so many hospital visits, and I was going from being sick to not being sick to being sick again.”

“Thanks to my mom Tracy, my dad Robert, and the Transplant Program at the University of Alberta, I have a new life,” says Mat. “The surgical team is fantastic, and I have nothing but respect for the nurses who have been caring for and supporting me for a long time.”

“My message to anyone who is going through what I went through is don’t give up. It’s hard but I’m living proof that there’s a second chance,” says Mat. “And for those who are considering donating a kidney, it’s such a gift to give. You’re giving life to someone else so that they can continue theirs.”

Vicars School donated one day’s massage fees from the Edmonton and Calgary supervised student massage clinics to the program. At Vicars student massage clinics, students offer massages to the public as part of their practicum. The day’s clinics were fully booked and the money raised was donated to the University of Alberta Hospital Foundation in the name of Mat’s benefit.

The University of Alberta Hospital offers the most comprehensive organ and tissue transplant program in Canada, and provides life-saving care to Canadians in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, BC, Nunavut, Yukon, and NWT.

“I’m so appreciative of what Vicars is doing,” says Mat. “It’s just amazing for Vicars to use its platform to support the transplant community.”

Kathleen Thurber
Author: Kathleen Thurber

Kathleen Thurber is an Edmonton-based health and science writer.