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Donating Organs After Death: Could Bring Solace In Grief, Say Families

06/18/2012 03:00 EDT | Updated 08/18/2012 05:12 EDT
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On one side, there is joy: up to eight people and their families whose prayers for a life-saving or life-altering transplant have been answered. On the other is sorrow: a family grieving the loss of a loved one who made all those miracles possible.

Though privacy reasons will likely keep them from ever knowing one another's identities, donor families say sharing that unbreakable, if anonymous, bond can bring great solace, even in the midst of so much heartbreak.

For Kim LeBlanc, knowing that her 15-year-old son Tyler Schwering's organs, eyes and other tissues have given life or healing to others is helping her cope with the loss of her child, who was struck by a transport truck in Guelph, Ont., on May 31.

"I read about Helene Campbell," says LeBlanc, speaking of the 21-year-old Ottawa woman who received a life-saving double-lung transplant in early April and was making a remarkable recovery less than two months later. "When we were up in the hospital, I heard people talking about it — and what an incredible story.

"But I think people need to hear from the other side, too."

Tyler, described by his mother as a happy kid with a "quirky little smile" whose passion was playing X-box games, was wearing earbuds and believed to have been texting a friend when he stepped onto a high-traffic road against the green light and was struck by the truck.

He was airlifted to a Hamilton hospital with severe brain swelling and multiple broken bones. Surgery was performed to ease the pressure on his brain, but the family was told he would not recover.

"With all of his injuries, I just prayed all night for a miracle. And I was granted a miracle, but not in the way I'd expected," says LeBlanc, her voice choked by emotion.

The family decided to donate Tyler's organs, a choice she believes her "very kind and considerate" son would have made on his own.

"There really wasn't any decision to be made," insists LeBlanc, 44. "This was what we had to do. They gave us time to think, but it wasn't necessary. This was the only choice. It was the right choice."

It is a choice that transplant programs wish would be made more often, because the need for donor organs far outstrips supply worldwide, says Ronnie Gavsie, CEO of the Trillium Gift of Life Network, which co-ordinates transplantation in Ontario.

More than 1,500 people in the province are on the waiting list for life-saving organs, and one dies every day because an organ has not become available in time, she says, adding that only 21 per cent of eligible Ontarians have registered consent to be donors.

Across Canada, the gap between donations and the need for organs continues to widen, says the Canadian Institute for Health Information, which keeps donor organ and transplant statistics.

At the end of 2010, the latest year for which figures are available, more than 4,400 Canadians were on the waiting list for donor organs, including 3,362 needing a kidney. That year, 229 died before the organs they needed became available.

"One donor can save up to eight lives with organ transplants, and here we're mainly talking about kidney, liver, heart, lung, possibly pancreas," says Gavsie. "But also one donor can enhance the lives of up to 75 other people through the donation of eyes, skin, bone, heart valves.

"We need a much larger pool of donors."

For Carolyn Davis-Jardine, donating her 45-year-old husband Dan's organs wasn't the most difficult decision. It was terminating life-support nine days after he fell from a roof, suffering irreparable brain damage and a shattered spine that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

"It was such a hard time for me and I didn't want to think about it," she says, her grief still palpably raw almost two years later. "But at the same time, I knew I was doing the right thing. It was Dan's dying wish to donate his organs.

"We talked about it so many times. We made sure our cards were signed. But he always kept saying: 'It will never happen. It will never happen. Don't worry about it.'

"And it did."

Davis-Jardine now lives in Haileybury, Ont., after moving north from Oshawa, near Toronto. When she feels overcome by sorrow, her 20-year-old daughter Kristina reminds her that her husband isn't gone — he lives on in those people who received his organs.

"She makes me close my eyes and she makes me think of all those people that are still living because of him.

"I'm so, so thankful to know that Dan helped other people. And I'm so happy to know other people are either living better or are actually living. Because I know how much it hurts me because he's gone, and it would be like this for other families, to know that (their loved one) could live but they can't because they need that organ.

"And my husband has helped those people. Through his death, he's helped those people."

Joanna Mitchell is grateful every day to the donor family who made it possible for her daughter Ryley to live.

The seven-year-old was diagnosed at two months old with a congenital heart defect; without a transplant, she would surely have died.

In January 2006, after about five months of travelling weekly to Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children from their home in Woodstock, Ont., doctors told Mitchell and her husband Jeff that they had a new heart for their daughter.

"We were excited that she was getting the heart. And I think you didn't really let yourself go to thinking about (the donor) because you just need to get through it," recalls Mitchell.

"It was afterwards ... It's become more of an emotional thing for me, because the longer we have her with us, the more you think about that family. For me Christmas is always the worst, knowing that they don't have their child to be celebrating Christmas with."

"You can't thank them enough and you can't imagine their pain," she says of the U.S. family who donated their child's organs. "But there's a piece of their child that's still living on, and their heart's still beating and still giving life. And that's just an amazing thing that we're so grateful for."

Kim LeBlanc recalls the morning when her son was taken off life-support and his organs removed. The grief-stricken family, including Tyler's two sisters and two stepbrothers, had gathered in a special room at the hospital after saying their final goodbyes.

"I said to my family, 'You know, it's so quiet here. We don't hear a thing. But just know how many families are getting that call, where they're having their tears of happiness and Tyler is going to live on in them.'"

Despite living what she calls a parent's absolute worst nightmare, LeBlanc says knowing her son has given the gift of life to so many others is giving her the strength to endure such an unbearable loss.

"He's still out there. He's still living. And he's still breathing. And he's brought so much joy to families," she says.

"He's my hero. He really is my hero."

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Methods for consenting to be an organ donor vary depending on the province or territory. Ontarians can sign up at www.beadonor.ca. In Manitoba, consent can be given at www.gov.mb.ca/health/donor. In Alberta, for instance, residents agree to organ donation by signing the back of their health cards.

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