Voice your choice

The Life Line Expedition was a six man climbing team with a sole purpose Ñ to raise awareness about organ transplants in Canada. Formed by Sylvain Bédard, a thirty-five year old father of five and set builder from Longueuil, Quebec, the team successfully ascended Mont Blanc in France.

Sylvain initiated the expedition to Mont Blanc because it was something that he always wanted to accomplish. He visited Chamonix, the small village located at the base of Mont Blanc in 1987 before receiving his transplant. Due to his weakened condition and the high altitude he was unable to even take the tram up the mountain. He vowed to one-day return, and thanks to a new heart he was not only able to return to the mountain, he was able to conquer it.

The remarkable Sylvain is the first heart transplant recipient to climb this, the highest summit in continental Europe. Over a period of five days Sylvain and the team sponsored by Merck Frosst, survived the extreme conditions on the 4,807 meter mountain. The conditions were so treacherous that while climbing the area known as Death Valley, another climber slipped and fell to his death moments before the Life Line Expedition began their ascent.

More than 3,700 Canadians are currently awaiting organs. Last year, 147 Canadians died while waiting for an organ transplant. The organ donation rate in Canada is lower than any other country in the G8.

As a teenager, Sylvain lost his 18-year-old sister suddenly when she suffered a heart attack. Shortly after her death, Sylvain learned that he had hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, a hereditary thickening of the heart muscle. The condition severely limited Sylvain’s physical activities making it impossible for him to partake in any sports. By 1997 he began to suffer blackouts and had a number of strokes. In 1999 he was suffering from daily bouts of angina attacks.

Today Sylvain attempts to conquer yet another overwhelming challenge. More than 3,700 Canadians are currently awaiting organs. Last year, 147 Canadians died while waiting for an organ transplant. The organ donation rate in Canada is lower than any other country in the G8. There are less than 14 donors per million people in this county, as compared with more than 31 in Spain. Even more incredible is that the waiting list for organ transplants in this country continues to climb, while the donation rates continue to decline.

This disturbing reality may be attributed to many factors. Unfortunately the leading cause and most disheartening reason for this occurrence, is the lack of awareness about organ donation. Recent statistics indicate that 78% of Canadians believe there is a great need for organ donation. 71% of people are willing to donate any organs needed for transplantation. Unfortunately, these statistics do not reflect the reality in hospitals and patients waiting for organs.

Heather Fisher, former president of the Canadian Transplant Association (CTA) and co-chairperson of the World Games for transplants says, “It’s imperative that potential organ donors speak to their families and let their wish to donate be known.” Ms. Fisher is also a mountain climber and an organ recipient herself, having been the first liver transplant patient to successfully climb Kilamanjaro. Ms. Fisher has lived with her new liver for more than twenty years and is an active advocate for organ and tissue donation. With her help, London, Ontario will host the World Transplant Games in 2005.

Becoming an organ donor is perhaps the most personal decision one can make and takes a great deal of thought and discussion. It is also a decision that can have extraordinary results. Sylvain was not only able to achieve his goal thanks to the decision and gift of life his donor made; he was able to extend his life.

Organ donation takes time and money. Physicians are not reimbursed for the hours it takes to find a suitable donor, and a number of factors must be researched and tested to ensure that the donor and recipient are an exact “cross match.”

There are twenty-eight hospitals in Canada that are able to perform organ transplant operations. One hospital that is making a difference is the Royal Victoria Hospital, in Montreal. Five years ago it became the first hospital to implement a full time position to manage the efforts of organ donation. Within the first year the team was responsible for doubling the number of scheduled transplant operations. Lisa Goulet, Nurse Clinician for Organ Tissue Donation at the Royal Victoria Hospital, attributes this success to a team effort, “We speak to families and offer them the option. Our role is not to convince, but to offer the choice in a sensitive manner.”

Organ donation cards were at one time attached to provincial drivers licenses. Today in Canada, an organ donor form must be requested at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or the information is added to your health card.Ñ In other countries, such as Belgium, organ donation is standard unless formally requested otherwise.

Sylvain and the Life Line team all believe that if their expedition inspires and gives hope to just one person, then the entire journey will be worthwhile.