Transplant gives family the gift of life

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An accident nearly stole Jay Robertson’s life. And, a tragedy gave it back to him. Four years ago the then 10-year-old boy was clinging to life while his family prayed for a miracle.

An accident in 2002 on the family farm in Springwater Township critically damaged his small bowel and liver. Jay’s mother, Mary, says the day the accident happened was a blur, but one thing she does remember is a doctor in a Toronto hospital telling her that it was likely her son would not make it through the ordeal. The miracle of organ donation changed that diagnosis.

For almost a year Jay spent much of his time in hospital. Pain, severe nose bleeds, abdominal bleeding and vomiting became a part of his daily life, but it wasn’t until his liver went into total failure that his situation took a turn for the worse.

“He was so bad that you think there is no hope, but at the same time you don’t want to give up,” says Mary who is also a nurse at Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie. “Each night we would pray that Jay would be kept strong so we could get through the next day.”

Soon it became evident that Jay’s only chance to live would be a small bowel and liver transplant. “When he was put on the waiting list we were told it could take from six months to years,” says Mary. “We were also told he could die waiting.” Or, someone would have to die in order for him to live.

“Up to seven lives can be saved by one organ donor,” says Catharine Ritter, Organ and Tissue Donation Coordinator with Trillium Gift of Life Network in Toronto. “And yet so many myths and misconceptions about organ donation exist that many people choose not to donate.”

This means there is a critical lack of organs available for transplant and the wait is killing people. Currently more than 1,800 people in Ontario are waiting for an organ transplant. “Every three days someone dies in Ontario waiting for an organ transplant,” says Ritter, who after 21 years of nursing decided to take on the task of being the Organ and Tissue Donation Coordinator for Simcoe-Muskoka Region.Ritter works closely with Kari Simpson-Adams, the manager of Royal Victoria Hospital’s (RVH) Critical Care Unit and together they make sure families are made aware of the organ donation process. RVH currently performs organ and tissue retrieval and is eager to educate the families of patients who are candidates for organ donation. “Approximately 45,000 people die in Ontario hospitals each year and of those people only one per cent would meet the criteria to be an organ donor,” says Ritter.

In the last two years RVH has had four people donate organs to those in need. “It is really tough because families feel as if they are giving up hope if they agree to organ and tissue donation. But what we are really offering is the next step of life,” says Simpson- Adams. “One person could potentially save seven other people. Death is terrible, but wouldn’t it be nice to be able to save another family from going through the same grief?”

At RVH families will be approached and presented with the organ donation option by a nurse or physician. The possibility of donation is considered only when all lifesaving efforts have failed and brain death is declared. Organs and tissue that can be donated include the heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, lungs, small bowel, stomach, corneas, heart valves, eyes, bone and skin.

“It is a very hard time for families because they are clinging so heavily to hope,” says Simpson -Adams, adding ideally organs should be removed and transplanted within 24 hours of brain death.

Everyone is a potential organ and tissue donor, regardless of their age. The oldest Canadian organ donor to date was over 90 years of age while the oldest tissue donor was 102.

Ultimately the ability to become an organ and tissue donor depends on several factors including the health of the organs and tissue at the time of death. Recovery of donated organs and tissue is carried out with surgical skill, respect, and dignity, and does not change the appearance of the body. It does not interfere with funeral practices.

“The most important thing is to tell your family members and physicians about your wishes concerning organ donation because ultimately they will be the ones making the decision,” says Simpson-Adams.

On Oct. 31 2003, almost a year after his accident, Jay received a small bowel and a liver. The operations took more than 18 hours and there would be months of recovery ahead but the worst was over.”We were so relieved. I cried most of the day and did lots of pacing,” Mary says.Today,ÊJay attends high school and is back to his normal, joking self and able to wrestle and have fun with his three brothers. His recovery was so successful that last year he was able to participate in the Summer Transplant Games for Team Canada in London. Jay entered the 50-metre run, running long jump, cricket ball throw and 5-pin bowling. He won medals in two of his events. This young man, who not so long ago lay in a hospital bed unable to use his bowels, eat solid food and with a liver so badly damaged that his skin turned green, was now competing in sporting events. There were 16,000 participants from 48 countries and they all had one thing in common – they each had undergone an organ transplant.

“The whole thing about organ donation is such a miracle. For someone to be able to think of others at such a painful time is amazing,” says Mary. “This family has given my son life. If it weren’t for organ donation Jay just wouldn’t be here.”

For more information about organ donation please contact the Trillium Gift of Life Network at 1-877-363-8456.