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Donating Organs, Harvesting Life

Editor's Note: Janet Hunt is Secretary of AEBC's Winnipeg, Manitoba, Chapter.

On May 21, 2001, after 22 years of type 1 diabetes, I received a new kidney and pancreas. I got the call at my home in Winnipeg very late on a Sunday night, and by 1:00 a.m. I was winging my way to Toronto General Hospital thanks to Life Flight. That was the beginning of the rest of my "new" life.

I returned to Winnipeg two months after my transplant surgery and was approached by a coordinator with Transplant Manitoba. She asked if I'd be interested in volunteering for the program to promote organ donor awareness; in other words, standing up in front of strangers and sharing my personal journey through illness and disability. No way could I do that--I told her she was nuts.

Fast forward five years and I am now a regular volunteer, speaking at high schools, business lunches, annual general meetings, and hospital training programs to whoever is interested. It's been quite the adventure and although I was almost paralyzed with fright at first, I really enjoy myself now. Sybil, the Transplant Coordinator who recruited me and who has become a good friend, has several volunteers like me. Some are transplant recipients, and some are organ donors. Usually Sybil works with one volunteer, but occasionally she will use two or three to give the audience a broader perspective of the transplant community.

One of my first presentations was for the annual "Tree of Life" celebration, in honour of those who either donated the organs of family members, or were themselves living organ donors. The name of each donor is printed on a leaf and attached to the donor tree as a permanent reminder of their "gift of life". It was a very emotional evening and several people approached me to thank me for confirming their belief that something good could come out of tragedy, or in some cases where words just wouldn't come, shake my hand over and over.

I also had the privilege to participate in a half-hour-long video called "When the Call Comes", which has aired a few times on CTV. The documentary features five families and their personal experiences with transplant. The video attempts to drive home the importance of organ donation by revealing the harsh reality of donor waiting lists, dialysis and other treatments, the heart wrenching decision to donate the organs of a loved one, and the enormity of this gift.

The most important message we try to convey is to discuss organ donation with your family. In Manitoba there is no presumed consent. In the event you are pronounced brain dead, transplant staff must approach your family about organ donation. Making that kind of decision while dealing with the grief of losing a loved one is difficult, but if the subject has been discussed and your family is aware of your wishes, it will make that decision much easier.

I think my favourite presentations are to Grade 10 high school students who are surprisingly attentive, and not surprisingly eager to ask the most imaginative questions. At that age, they are about to get their driver's licenses and we hope to encourage them to discuss organ donation with their families. I describe what life is like for a diabetic, my kidney failure and two years of dialysis treatment, my complete loss of vision due to diabetic retinopathy and the struggle to regain my independence. They are curious about who can become an organ donor and how organs are harvested. They ask about my medications, and at least one person wants to know "How big is your scar?" They laugh with me at my mother's attempts at sighted guide, mishaps in elevators and revolving doors, several unwitting trips to the men's room and countless other adventures with my white cane. I explain that getting a guide dog definitely gave me more confidence but now I have to share the spotlight with a black Labrador.

Although I thought of this as a way to give something back to the community, I receive much more than I give. I have met some incredible people and taken advantage of a lot of free lunches. Many people are too afraid to ask questions during presentations, but will seek me out afterwards to share their own personal transplant experience, or thank me for helping them decide to sign their organ donor card, and I feel like I've made a new friend.

Thanks to my donor family I am now "cured" of diabetes and free from dialysis. I don't plan my life around a dialysis machine, I have more energy than I've had in years, I enjoy a busy social life and work three days a week at a job I love. I have time to participate in organizations like AEBC and Transplant Manitoba where I hope my contribution will make a difference. After receiving the "gift of life", I'm not afraid of public speaking anymore--I want to tell everyone!

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