Last December, a friend of ours who had been in declining health for years had a double lung transplant. A little more than two months later, she was sitting at our dining room table, attacking a bowl of spicy fish stew, breathing comfortably and looking healthier than she has in a very long time.
“Miracle” is a word I use cautiously, but I have no hesitation in the case of major organ transplants. The medical knowledge and expertise that go into a transplant like our friend’s is almost beyond mortal comprehension. The fact that transplants of this magnitude have become almost commonplace is itself miraculous. Surgeons at the Toronto hospital where our friend received her new lungs have performed more than 1,000 lung transplants since pioneering the procedure in the early 1980s. Worldwide, such transplants number in the tens of thousands. Double lung transplants are still considered a last resort, but it’s a last resort that didn’t exist just a generation ago.
The sobering side of transplants is that someone has to die before another person can receive a new lease on life — the miracle lurks in a tragedy. Our friend will likely never know whose lungs she received. But she is acutely aware that someone is dead while she is alive. She’s a person of deep faith, certain that God has been a loving companion throughout her long illness, during the ups, downs, stops and starts leading up to her surgery, and throughout the arduous recovery that followed. On a practical level, she understands that she might never have had a transplant if the person whose lungs she received hadn’t consented at some point to make their organs available in the event of their death.
Organ donation can seem pretty abstract until you’re sitting across the table from someone who might not be there were it not for someone else’s lungs or heart or kidneys or liver. The old clichés about something good coming from something bad don’t seem like clichés anymore — they ring absolutely true. A family grieves. Another rejoices. One life ends, but another is saved. That’s the logic of this particular miracle.
Canadians are full of good intentions when it comes to organ donation but weak on follow-through. According to the Canadian Transplant Society, 90 percent of Canadians support organ donation in principle, but only 25 percent have formally registered to be a donor. The result is thousands of people on waiting lists — and countless deaths that might have been avoided. Our friend tells me about a man who moved to the top of the lung-transplant priority list after her surgery; he eventually died because no lungs became available.
The moral of the story: more donors mean more miracles. Signing a donor card and carrying it in your wallet is not as effective as recording your consent with your provincial registry for organ and tissue donations. In most provinces, you can do it online. It takes about two minutes, and the information is kept confidential until you are declared legally dead and hospital staff meet with your family. The registries help demystify the harvesting process and point out that by making your intentions clear and keeping them on record, you lessen the emotional burden on your loved ones.
I called our friend the other day, just as her three-month post-transplant convalescence was drawing to a close. She was busy cooking dinner, her voice strong and clear as she reported that she and her husband were preparing to vacate the apartment they had rented for her recovery. They were going home. We made arrangements to pick up a chair they’d borrowed from us.
I never imagined something so mundane could seem so wondrous.
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
Sheima Benembarek was born in Saudi Arabia, grew up in Morocco and moved to Canada in 2005. In 2015, she relocated to Toronto. At first, the city seemed so much bigger, impersonal — and even threatening — until a fateful encounter in the subway one day.
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