Jamie Barber looked outside the window from his hospital bed and watched someone walking down the street, and wondered if that would become impossible for him to do.
At the time, Barber was in a hospital room in Edmonton, at the pinnacle of a 12-year cycle in his life that began at age five when he was diagnosed with cancer, ultimately leaving him in need of a heart transplant at age 21.
Because of the organ donor program, Barber was able undergo that heart transplant 12 years ago, and today he’s thankful to have been given a second chance in life.
“Today, my health is great, I play hockey all the time, I have no limitations,” said the Kelowna resident.
“The only thing I have to do is take medication daily to make sure my body doesn’t reject my heart and do my best to avoid getting sick with a cold or the flu.
“Your perspective on life changes after going through a heart transplant. For me, it’s hard to be sad or unhappy about anything. I am kinder to other people, and I am alive today because of the kindness of others.”
Jeanne Usen said she knew almost immediately what to do when hearing about the health situation faced by Caroline Lopes, a customer at the shop where Usen worked and a friend of her store manager.
Lopes needed a kidney transplant. The single mother who had worked in the nutrition services at Kelowna General Hospital for more than 20 years, Lopes had battled various forms of diabetes since she was an infant, and at age 43 found herself in need of a kidney transplant.
Her blood type was the most common, 0+, so the wait list for kidney transplant surgery was the longest, at 10 years.
Lopes feared she was running out of time when Usen came into her life.
“For me, it was an amazing gift to be able to give someone. It’s a powerful thing the feeling from which I wish I could explain but it truly comes from inside. I get quite emotional about it, to get to see a young woman get her life back, to be there for her daughter when she grows up and to be alive,” Usen said.
The transplant surgery was originally scheduled for last April, and was cancelled at the last minute due to anti-bodies showing up in her blood which meant she and Usen weren’t a kidney donor match.
“That was devastating at the time,” Lopes remembered. “I was on the verge of having to go on dialysis treatments at that point.”
But ongoing testing of Lopes’ blood detected that the anti-bodies present in April would subsequently disappear, allowing the transplant surgery to proceed last summer.
Today, Lopes is dealing with negative side affects from the anti-rejection medication she is taking, and recently spent two weeks in hospital unable to drink or eat anything while changes were made to her medication.
She compared the side-affects to chemo treatment for cancer—loss of hair, skin changes and nausea.
But for Lopes, these setbacks are another step in her journey and not her final destination, motivated by her desire to see her 13-year-old daughter grow up to be an adult.
“I am so lucky to be where I am today. Before the transplant, I would wake up every morning with nausea and no energy. It’s hard to even explain what that feels like,” she said.
In 2016, 423 people, Lopes included, received a life-saving transplant in B.C., the most transplants performed ever for a year in our province.
For the second consecutive year, the number of deceased organ donors numbered 97 in 2016, up two from the previous year.
The B.C. organ deceased organ donation rate is now 20.32 donors per million population—above the Canadian national rate of 18.2 donors per million as of 2015.
Within the Interior Health region, transplant surgeries have increase almost 60 per cent in 2016 compared to 2012, and increased from 59 to 67 comparing 2016 to 2015.
The upswing in organ donations and transplants is credited to increasing public awareness and support for organ donation, largely facilitated through the efforts of BC Transplant, which provides provincial oversight for all aspects of organ donation and transplant surgeries in B.C.
Dr. Sean Keenan, a pulmonologist (lungs) at Columbia Hospital in New Westminster, said the organ donation awareness factor is beginning to sink in with the general public, but remains an ongoing public education process.
“We have organ donor coordinators at hospitals who get the message out to medical staff about the need for organ donation…but for everybody it’s a personal decision,” said Keenan, who volunteers with BC Transplant as the medical director for donations.
“Our role is primarily to share the need and to share the potential gift of life that organ donors can give to someone else, and share what that means to other people in need of an organ transplant.”
He said as a doctor, it is overwhelming to see the generosity of families to experience the loss of a loved one, but see through organ donation a way to do something positive in a horrible situation.
“I can’t say how much I admire families for doing that, giving the major gift of life to someone else in the face of that kind of tragedy.”
Keenan said transplant surgeries are carried out at three locations in Vancouver—St Pauls Hospital, Vancouver General Hospital and BC Children’s Hospital.
In 2016, kidney transplants were the most done numbering 268, followed by liver (74), lung (40) and heart (28) and pancreas related (12).
Keenan said the organ donations are related to the number of transplant surgeries performed.
“Kidney transplants have the longest waiting list because of the need for donors and with kidney failure, you can be kept alive with dialysis blood treatment for many years waiting for transplant surgery. That’s not the case for other organs like the heart or lung,” he said.
As a living organ donor, Usen was able to meet Lopes, her organ recipient, and form a bond of friendship that has since extended to include other family members.
“A day after the surgery, I was able to walk to Caroline’s room, see her cheeks with a pink colour to them, her daughter sitting there. It was absolutely overwhelming for me and pretty damn cool,” she said.
While she says it was an easy operation—“I had the surgery Monday, was out of the hospital Wednesday and flew home on the Saturday”— she did go through a post-operation three month period where she had to avoid placing any unnecessary stress on her abdomen core.
“For three months I was told to go real slow, that was the hardest thing in the world to do,” laughed Essen, who just recently retired at the age of 65.
She is eager to tell her story because she hopes if one person hears about her story, thinks from it about being an organ donor and follows through, it will save someone’s life.
“It’s an amazing gift to give to someone,” she said.
From a low point sitting in that Edmonton hospital room, today Barber is embracing his new lease on life.
He was recently married and thinking about the prospect of raising a family, has completed his masters degree in health administration —his thesis was on organ donor registration—and he’s active buying and selling stocks.
“I never thought I had a future before I had the transplant, ” said Fraser, who suffered his first heart failure issues at age 14, the result of his body being weakened by chemo cancer treatments from ages two to six.
“I was on the transplant list from age 14 for seven years. My goal was just to survive, to think about getting through the next day, and now I am able to dream and think about the future.”