The greatest gift of all: Living donors give life back

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Tired. Really, really tired. That’s how Barrie’s Jennifer White felt for most of her 27 years. Yet, not one to let fatigue stop her from living life to the fullest, this young woman maintained high marks in school, went on to York University for her undergrad and Ryerson for her Masters, skated competitively and had an active social life.

Many of her friends were completely unaware of how much of a struggle it was for Jennifer just to be a ‘normal’ young person. “I had naps and went to bed really early,” says Jennifer, admitting that at times it was depressing. “I had migraines and some days I felt as if I couldn’t get up for work, but I did. I didn’t want to acknowledge I was sick.”

Jennifer had no idea just how sick she really was until a routine blood test told her story. She was in renal failure. Her only option was kidney dialysis three times a week. “I didn’t want to live. At 27 the last thing I wanted to do was to be tied down to a machine three times a week. I felt totally helpless and hopeless.”

Her parents, Mike and Vicki White knew their daughter’s determination not to be on dialysis could spell disaster for her. They were terrified. This was the first time the couple couldn’t fix things for their only child. “It was so painful for us to see her struggle so hard just to get through her day. For the first time we were not in control. We couldn’t fix this for her,” says Vicki, tears welling up in her eyes.

But very close by was someone who could. Holding Vicki’s hand, listening to her pain and hoping for a miracle, was Cathryn Vizza – Vicki’s best friend and colleague at Barrie’s Royal Victoria Hospital. The two friends work side-by-side as patient clerks in the Oncology Department. They shared a love of sewing and quilting and soon, with one extraordinary gift, they would share something significantly deeper.

Knowing Jennifer’s despair at having to be put on dialysis, the family set out to search for a living organ donor. Out of the 272 living organ transplants that took place last year in Ontario, 213 of the patients received a kidney. “There are currently more than 1,700 people in Ontario waiting for an organ transplant,” says Cathy Ritter, Organ and Tissue Donation Coordinator with the Trillium Gift of Life Network. “Every three days someone on that list dies because they did not get the organ they require.”

Everyone is a potential organ and tissue donor. One person can potentially donate seven organs and save eight lives. Through donation they can return sight to someone through eye donation, or provide enough tissue to help 40 tissue recipients, such as burn victims, or bone for bone grafting procedures. Organs that can be donated from living donors include a kidney, part of a liver, lobe of lung, part of intestine, portion of pancreas.

It was Vicki’s desire to be her daughter’s donor. Her blood type was a match, but as it turned out her kidney’s were not in good enough condition for transplant. Jennifer’s father, Michael was also unable to donate due to a preexisting health condition. They were devastated.

“I cried almost everyday at work, but when I got the call that I couldn’t be her donor I totally fell apart,” says Vicki. “I’m her mother, I had to be the match. I had to fix this for her. I felt totally helpless. I was so scared.” Cathryn was witness to all the pain her friend was going through and wondered what she could do to help. Then it hit her – maybe she would be a match for Jennifer.

“All I could think of was ‘I have to do something.’ I couldn’t sit back and watch my best friend suffer through this alone,” she recalls. “I have three healthy children and I don’t know what I would do if one of them were to get sick.” So, without Jennifer knowing, Cathryn went through a battery of tests to see if she indeed could be an organ donor. Blood tests and various diagnostic imaging tests, along with social worker visits, were needed to ensure that Cathryn could be a donor.

In the meantime, Jennifer was working as a public health nurse during the day and then at night she would sit in a dialysis chair for up to four hours, three times a week, hating every minute of it. “I was getting so desperate I was willing to go out of the country to look for an organ donor. I just thought, I can’t live the rest of my life sitting in this chair. It was so depressing. There was just no hope.”

Yet, hope was just around the corner. The final test, before the transplant operation could take place, required both Jennifer and Cathryn. That’s when Cathryn had to share her good news. She was a match. “It was so surreal when she told me. I was numb; at the same time I’m the kind of person who doesn’t really believe something until it becomes a reality.”

A few weeks later on November 25, 2008, Jennifer, dressed in a hospital gown and waited for surgeons to remove Cathryn’s kidney. The transplant went well, and eight days later Jennifer was home and recovering. She had a few complications following her surgery, but overall Jennifer is on the road to recovery and ready to begin her new life.

Cathryn’s recovery was a little slower, requiring additional time off work. “I have no regrets. This is one of the most wonderful things I have had the privilege of doing,” says Cathryn.

And for Jennifer, it’s a second chance at life. “I think it takes an exceptional person to donate an organ, especially a living organ donation. It is difficult to express the appreciation my family has for Cathryn and what she has done for me. She will forever be a part of my life, and a part of my family,” Jennifer says. “I never knew just how tired I was until after the surgery. I feel like a brand new person. I have my whole life ahead of me now.”

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