‘Forever our hero’

When Kevin Heins and his father picked up their new truck they had a life changing conversation. After nearly being sideswiped by another vehicle, Gene Heins said to his 14-year-old son, “If anything ever happens to me, make sure my organs are donated.” Kevin simply said, “Okay Dad, me too.”

In hindsight the conversation seems prophetic to Gene. Just days later, Kevin was tragically injured during a snowmobile accident. Although he initially appeared only battered and bruised, Kevin was taken to McMaster Children’s Hospital by ambulance where doctors determined he had swelling in his brain. After undergoing surgery, it became clear that Kevin’s injuries were fatal and his parents had to make a decision.

Without hesitation, Gene and his wife Elenor informed hospital staff that Kevin wanted to be an organ donor.

“It was a complete fluke that we’d actually talked about it,” said Gene. Within a few hours of Kevin’s passing, Gene and Elenor received a phone call from Nancy Hemrica, Hamilton Health Sciences’ Organ Donation Coordinator. Even in the midst of their profound grief, the news they received lifted their spirits in a way they never thought possible. Nancy informed them that Kevin’s organs had been transplanted into seven people, including a middle-aged man who’s life depended on a heart transplant, a young man with cystic fibrosis who needed a lung transplant, two teenagers received Kevin’s kidneys and freedom from dialysis, a man with severe diabetes received Kevin’s pancreas and Kevin’s liver was divided between a middle-aged woman and a tiny child.

“We would have been happy with one,” said Gene, “but seven! It was like a blind had been lifted and we were able to see something good in what happened to Kevin. It gave me the strength to get through the funeral and it gives me strength to keep going each day.”

In 2004, Hamilton Health Sciences had 21 multiple donors, five tissue donors and 30 cornea donors. According to Nancy, only one per cent of 1,200 people who die in hospital meet the criteria for organ donation and Kevin’s story is an example of how important organ donation is.

“Because of what you did, you changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people,” Nancy said to Gene. “Every time we tell Kevin’s story we share the message of organ donation. Kevin’s gift of life is not only the seven lives he directly saved, it is immeasurable in the other lives he touched.”

Currently, about 70 per cent of people who are asked about organ donation following the death of a loved one consent. The consent rate for the pediatric population at McMaster Children’s Hospital was 100 per cent last year. In order to increase awareness of organ donation, earlier this year the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care launched the routine notification and required request initiative mandating that every hospital death be reported to the Trillium Gift of Life Network. Each patient is screened for medical suitability and families are offered the option of organ and tissue donation.

Staff in the Emergency Department, ICU and 7 West at Hamilton General Hospital are currently participating in a voluntary pilot project to help determine what type of emotional and resource challenges the new protocol will create. Hamilton Health Sciences is also partnering with St. Joseph’s Healthcare to ensure operating rooms are available to recover organs when donors are identified.

“This is a way for us to give exemplary end of life care,” said Nancy. “There’s no question, organ donation is a difficult subject to broach with patient families, but what if we never asked the question?”

Routine notification will allow every family the right to decide for themselves if organ and tissue donation is something they would want.

Nancy said extensive support will be available to staff at the General and St. Joseph’s as they embark on the pilot of routine notification and she is optimistic the project will help affect a positive change in practice throughout Hamilton.

Only three months after Kevin’s death, Gene and the rest of his family continue to work through their grief and the void that Kevin’s passing has left in their lives. In spite of everything he’s been through, Gene is quick to express his gratitude to Nancy, Social Worker Carol-Ann Szwarz and others at the hospital who helped his family during their darkest hour. And now, he wants to help by making others aware of the importance of organ donation.

“This happened to us for a reason and I’m proud of how we did this,” said Gene. “I know we did the right thing. Kevin is forever our hero.”