A Family Journey to Transplant

A Family Journey to Transplant

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By: Dr. Laura Slade, Resident in Psychiatry, University of Toronto

Just over two years ago, our family was given the biggest gift anyone can receive. My dad was given a second chance at life. Yet all the while, another family out there was facing a tremendous loss of their own. In April 2012 following over four months of waiting in the hospital on supportive treatment, my dad finally got his heart transplant.

It is hard to capture into words the many years of uncertainty and struggle that our family went through on the road to transplant, let alone a few. For a long time, I prepared myself for the very real possibility that my dad may not survive until a transplant was available. I still vividly recall my first year medical school lecture on heart failure where a graph depicting ‘survival versus time’ made this reality all too clear. While trying to remain positive, I had to also be realistic that my dad may not get to walk me down the aisle or meet his future grandchildren.

All that being said, my dad was championed by his entire team of physicians, nurse practitioners, and coordinators as part of his journey to transplant. When his heart failure became severe, he was hospitalized and cared for by the wonderful nursing team at Toronto General Hospital. They made it their collective goal to keep him as healthy as possible until a donor heart was found. Unfortunately, the nature of his cardiomyopathy meant that beyond an implantable defibrillator, surgical interventions (such as ventricular assist devices) to bridge him to transplant were not ideal. They worked toward the goal for Dad to just have one surgery – the transplant – if at all possible.

Following roughly 9 months on the official heart transplant list, and over 4 months in hospital waiting, the call came in the early hours of the morning. A donor heart had been found. We descended upon the hospital shortly after 3 am to spend time together as the preoperative preparations were made. Dad was cool, calm, and collected. He was ready. As his surgeon and anaesthesiologist wheeled him toward the OR, Dad hummed the lyrics to “Centerfield” by John Fogerty: “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play today.”

Four hours. Four hours was all it took for the surgery to be done. The wait was not easy. My mom and sister kept busy, cleaning up Dad’s room on the fifth floor, which by now had accumulated quite a lot of cards, magazines, and books from visiting family and friends. I spent the majority of the time calling and emailing our family members. The time passed remarkably quickly, all things considered. Soon enough, we were able to pay a brief visit to Dad in the Cardiovascular ICU. Medical school had prepared me for the image of him, minimally conscious, with many drains, tubes, and IVs running out of his body. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was the overwhelming feeling of love. We didn’t know a single thing about Dad’s donor, except that it was a young person from elsewhere in the province. Despite not having a name or face to put to the donor heart, I felt a powerful sense of connectedness, and above all, love. Our family had always recognized the awful reality that for a heart to become available, someone’s life would come to an end. Usually, it is someone fairly young, and frequently someone who had an accident. This day that we were celebrating the chance at a new life for my dad was also a day that somewhere, another family was grieving the loss of their loved one.

Not a day goes by that our family doesn’t think of, and honour the life of our donor and the donor’s family. We celebrate the anniversary of Dad’s transplant with the TGH team as well as the family and friends who stood behind us. Dad attends meetings with his fellow “Heartlinks” members as well as organ donation awareness groups to spread the much needed word about signing up on BeADonor.ca. In closing, I would like to say thank you to those of you reading who have already given your consent for organ donation. To those of you who have not signed up on BeADonor.ca yet, but do indeed wish to be an organ donor, please consider doing this today. You could save the life of someone amazing like my dad.