Ian Smyth loved Star Wars, so when actor Hayden Christensen (who played young Darth Vader) spent 15 minutes speaking with him at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, it was a treat that bolstered the teen’s spirits. Smyth was at the hospital recovering from a double-lung transplant.
When he was five years old, the Sudbury youngster was attacked by a virus that seriously damaged his lungs. By the time he was 13, he needed a transplant.
His first double-lung transplant happened in 2008 and, after the successful transplant, Smyth headed to St. Benedict’s Catholic Secondary School to try to lead a normal life.
But about a year later, he was back on the waiting list, as another virus hit his new lungs. In January 2010, Smyth received word that a second set of lungs had been found for him.
“In May of 2008 and January of 2010, two families faced their darkest hours,” Smyth’s mother, Susan, said to a crowd of about 100 at Marymount Academy on Dec. 13. Her voice choked up with tears as she spoke.
“Someone they loved died. Yet during this time of sorrow and pain, they made a courageous decision — they donated their loved ones’ organs.”
Smyth died last month, the victim of an opportunistic cancer that took root and spread through his body while his immune system was weak. He was 16.
The Sudbury Catholic District School Board is challenging the city’s residents to register their wishes pertaining to organ and tissue donation.
The city already has one of the highest rates of organ and tissue donation in the province at 40 per cent, especially when compared to the provincial average of 17.5 per cent.
“We are challenging the Greater Sudbury region to do something that hasn’t been done in Ontario before — register over 50 per cent of their community to consent to organ and tissue donation,” Dr. Frank Markel, president and CEO of the Trillium Gift of Life Network, said during the Marymount event.
The network manages the province’s organ and tissue donation registry. It has developed a program for the province’s educators.
The Sudbury Catholic Board will be one of the first to teach Grade 11 and 12 students about organ and tissue donation and the impact it can make on the lives of those involved.
In Ontario, statistics show that, when a person registers his or her wish to donate organs and tissues, those wishes are honoured about 90 per cent of the time. When the intent isn’t registered, 50 per cent of the time no donation is made, Markel said.
“As the local undertaker, I will tell you, they very seldom find the (paper donation) card,” Gerry Lougheed Jr. said to the crowd.
“In fact, if they do find the card, they ask your relatives if they knew you had the card. The relatives go ‘I’m in shock.’ Well, we won’t take the organs then.”
Kristen Gawalko is now a cardiology nurse in Halifax, N.S. She has bachelor degrees of science in nursing, arts, and biology, has gone sky diving and recently returned to Canada from a trip to Australia — things she could never have done without a family’s donation, her mother, Joan Gawalko, said.
In 1989, when Kristen was seven, doctors told her parents her kidneys had stopped working. She had to start dialysis, a system that cleaned her blood of waste products normally filtered by the kidneys.
After 10 years on the waiting list, a donor was found and, in 1999, Kristen received her new kidney.
“Kristen has two birthdays,” Joan said.
“Her birth in September, and her new-life birth in November. This year, she celebrated birthday number 11. Would all of this been possible without a transplant? No.”
Donations from people who have died can save up to eight lives — and make the lives of about 75 others better through tissue donations. But with so much focus on donating organs and tissue after death, living donation is often forgotten until families are facing the need for a new kidney or liver.
In Ontario, living donation is a possibility for kidney and liver transplants.
To register one’s wish to donate, all a person needs to do is visit a Service Ontario health card office, or mail in a registration form available on the network’s website.
For more information, visit www.giftoflife.on.ca.