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Organ donation: Beauty that comes from a tragedy
Dulce Intengan had one question nobody could answer in the days before her husband’s heart was stopped.
“I asked the doctor, ‘Will he still love me the same after the transplant?’” Intengan said, Wednesday as she, her husband and several others involved with B.C.’s organ transplant program gathered at Kelowna General Hospital for a 22-year-old tradition dubbed Operation Popcorn.
“’That, I don’t know’,” the surgeon told her, laughing.
“Luckily,” Dulce said as her husband came to her side in the hospital hallway, “everything was good.”
It’s been seven years since Bob Intengan, now 69, received his new heart, and the love Dulce worried about clearly figures large in the life he’s living.
He said he considers himself blessed since that operation to see his two daughters walk down the aisle, as well as the birth of four grandchildren.
And, as his family has grown, so has his gratitude for the gift of life he received all those years ago.
Bob thanked medical staff throughout the hospital for the work they do, noting people often complain about the health care system, but he’s had nothing but “first class” treatment all the way through.
“They were angels,” he said.
He also gave praise to the wife who cared for him in those dark hours.
She held him and prayed that they have one more chance after a heart attack that was expected to kill him put him at the top of the organ recipient list, instead.
And once he had that operation, she was there to nurse him as he healed.
“I couldn’t survive without her,” he said.
And last but not least, Intengan spoke of one more thank you that he can never fully express.
“Weeks after I had my transplant, I wrote a thank you letter to my donor’s family,” he said, noting that it wasn’t a terribly detailed account of his feelings, despite the complex emotions and thoughts that compelled him to put pen to paper.
He never heard back from the family, which is generally the standard for the program where donors remain anonymous.
But now, after all this time, he wants to try and write again although he’s not quite sure what to say.
“You want to honour them. You owe this person and you want to respect this gift,” he said, touching his chest.
“In the quietness of my own thoughts, I come to tears. It’s overwhelming.”
He also has made sure to live as fully as he’s able.
“You’ve got to enjoy life,” he said. “I have the utmost respect for this heart and the donor.”
The Intengans’ story is just one side of a relationship that is still one of the most emotionally charged in medicine.
People on the transplant list know they may die waiting for an organ, but the families of brain-dead patients are asked at what’s likely the most painful time in their lives, to move past their own grief and allow a loved one’s organs to be removed for the benefit of strangers, explained Trish Bosch, the in-hospital donation co-ordinator at Kelowna General Hospital with BC Transplant.
“These deaths are always tragic and they come suddenly to young people,” she said, noting that the retrieval work in the donation process is the most difficult on hospital staff as well.
“Donations, are the beauty that comes out of pure tragedy.”
Currently, there aren’t enough donor organs for all the people who need transplants.
More than 4,000 Canadians are waiting for an organ transplant to save their lives. Last year, only 1,803 transplants were performed, leaving many patients on waiting lists.
Unfortunately, 195 Canadians died while waiting for an organ transplant. Three-quarters of the patients on the list are waiting for a kidney transplant.
Although one donor can save as many as seven lives
What’s key in the process, however, is acting swiftly when the time comes to retrieve organs.
And for that reason alone, Bosch said it’s important for everyone to have that conversation with their loved ones.
Simply ask whether they want to be a donor.
“You don’t want that to be the question that your family has to deal with in their time of crisis,” said Matt Scaife, another organ recipient, who was also handing out popcorn as thanks to hospital staff.
Just 13 years earlier, Scaife was a familiar face to many of the staff at KGH as he waited for his liver transplant.
Diagnosed with sclerosing cholangitis in his 30s, Scaife spent what most people believe to be their most vital years, weak and jaundiced.
Then, in April 2000, a liver that matched his needs arrived.
“To have been transplanted is life-changing,” said Scaife, echoing Intengan’s sentiment of gratitude.
He’s so grateful, that he almost feels as though he’s now living for two, and he’s squeezing the most out of the life he’s been given.
“You just don’t put off for tomorrow, what you can do today,” he said, noting that he’s been on a flying trapeze in Whistler, and raced cars.
“If somebody offers, I do it.”
It’s a new lease on life that wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the generosity of his donor and the hospital staff, which is why he’s taken part in Operation Popcorn for the last 10 years.
He also is a vocal advocate for registering to donate, noting that it’s as simple as going to, www.donatelife.net or www.organdonor.gov or turning to a loved one and expressing your wishes.
It’s Operation Popcorn week, and teams of transplant recipients are delivering festive tins of popcorn to staff in the intensive care units, emergency departments and operating rooms across the province.
These health care professionals see the tragic side of organ donation as they support families of donors, dealing with the loss of a loved one.
A visit from the Operation Popcorn team allows the staff to see the people whose lives are saved through organ donation.
This year BC Transplant’s Operation Popcorn visited 27 hospitals throughout B.C. and one in the Yukon, including Kelowna Genertal Hospital.
So far this year, 304 life saving transplants have been performed in B.C., but there’s still a nationwide disparity between donations and those in need.
• In 2001, there were 420 deceased organ donors in Canada for a national rate of 13.5 donors per million population.
• Seventy seven per cent of donors give more than one organ or tissue. According to the Canadian Organ Replacement Register, death usually results from an intracranial event—49 per cent—such as a stroke, brain aneurysm or cerebral hemorrhage.
• The second leading cause of death—21 per cent—is motor vehicle collision. The average age of donors has increased steadily.
• In 2000, deceased organ donors ranged in age from under one year to 84 years old, with an average age of 39 years.
• Demographics and organ transplants in Canada, 2000-2040, a report by David Baxter and Jim Smerdon, found that Canada’s low rate of organ donation in comparison to other countries is not a result of lack of generosity or altruism, but because of better health practices.
• Canada’s risk of death from automobile accidents or gunshot wounds is much lower than the United States. Canadian’s access to excellent health care also lowers the probability of death.
• BC Transplant provides provincial oversight for all aspects or organ donation and transplantation in B.C.
• B.C.’s three transplant centres are BC Children’s Hospital, St. Paul’s Hospital and Vancouver General Hospital. Transplant patients receive follow up care at the transplant centres or at one of seven regional clinics close to their home community.
For more information visit www. transplant.bc.ca.