One of our companions on our recent rafting trip was Maureen Rae, a family doctor from Ottawa. Her story is an important one which set me thinking, and may do the same for you.
Five years ago, her husband John Timmermann, then 58 years of age, was in the prime of his life. The father of two, an avid outdoorsman, photographer, and jack-of-all-trades, he had encouraged Maureen to change her practice so they could spend more time travelling. The day after she moved to a larger medical clinic, she awoke to find her husband unconscious on the floor with a bleeding gash on his head. She called 9-1-1, went to emergency and, after a CT scan was done, she realized that he had suffered a massive stroke which was catastrophic. She spoke with the medical staff and, acting on the wishes of her husband, asked that as many of his organs and tissues as possible be harvested for transplants.
The decision to give his organs was not hard. Ten years before, 11-year old Sandrine Craig, a student at the public school attended by John and Maureen’s children, had died from an accident. Before she did so, her family donated her organs and tissues so that six people, including three children, benefitted from her “gift of life.” A foundation, Sandrine’s Gift of Life, was created in her memory. This event raised community consciousness about organ donation and Maureen’s family had long ago discussed their desire to donate organs, should the occasion arise. With her husband near death, Maureen knew that “organ donation has to happen” so that she and the family could salvage something out of the tragedy before them.
John was in a coma. For two days, one medical team worked to keep him alive, as others tested his organs to find their viability, surgical teams assembled, and recipients waiting on lists were alerted to prepare for transplants. During this time, Maureen, her children and friends were with him at the hospital to say goodbye, and medical staff came to know him well. The day after he was declared brain dead, his favourite music played in the operating room and staff read aloud letters written by his children, while doctors removed his corneas, heart, lungs, kidneys, pancreas and liver. His lungs went to Toronto, the only city in Ontario with the capacity to do such transplants.
Maureen recalled that “Something touched us as a family… that allowed us… to keep it an incredibly beautiful experience, even though it was tremendously horrible.” A month later, the Trillium Gift of Life Network (TGLN) advised the family that all the transplants had gone well, and that seven adults had benefitted from John’s organs. The Eye Bank of Canada also sent good news. The TGLN facilitates anonymous correspondence between donor families and recipients. Maureen later received a card from the heart recipient and letters from the young woman who received John’s lungs. She described the simple things she could now do, the plans she could now make, and how saying “thank you” to John and his family could not express the depth of her gratitude.
Maureen thinks every day of John, the life he gave to others, and the legacy he left for her and their children. She adds that “You can tell people how wonderful it is to receive an organ, and they sort of get that. But I don’t think anyone thinks about how amazing it is to be on the donation side… tragedy happens… in the time of such incredible loss and sadness [it] is just a huge gift to us as a family.”
The Trillium Gift of Life Network, an agency of the Ontario government and a registered charity, organizes and promotes organ donations in Ontario. Organ donations from one person can help up to eight others, and tissue donation up to 75. There is a desperate need for organ and tissue donations, and there are too few donors. Registration as a donor is easy on the internet at beadonor.ca. Only registration ensures that your wishes are known to your family and doctors, should the need arise. I was present at the death of my aunt, over a decade ago; my one regret is that she had signed a card to give her corneas and no one knew about it. Don’t let that happen to you. Registration and talking about organ and tissue donation with family and friends is the best way to guarantee this last gift to others and to your family. I just registered. Perhaps you will do so as well.
As a postscript, a recent article in the Globe and Mail noted that national transplant groups were advocating for a broader donor pool. Discriminatory policies against homosexual men, intravenous drug users, sex workers and prison inmates have been made outmoded by modern testing. These policies, however, continue to prohibit them from donating organs and severely limit their ability even to give blood. When the need is so great, and the medical rationale for any limitations no longer viable, it strikes me that such regulations are totally unfair and dysfunctional. Not just for potential recipients, for whom life itself is a priority, but also for all those healthy donors denied the opportunity to leave a legacy of giving to their families.
This post was prepared with thanks to Dr. Maureen Rae. Much of the detail is taken from, “From loss, a legacy” written by Bruce Deachman in the Ottawa Citizen, December 24, 2011.