When Georgette Desormeaux was suffering from an enlarged heart three times its normal size almost three decades ago, she had to move to Ottawa and reside at the Ottawa Heart Institute.
But thanks to a man who signed his organ donor card, Desormeaux received a new heart on Oct. 15, 1991, and went on to live some 25 years before falling victim to pneumonia two years ago, just days shy of her 69thbirthday.
Her granddaughters — Danika and Josee-Anne Carriere — have never forgotten the man’s gift, deciding to get involved in the Irish Heritage Club’s annual 1 Saves 8 Michael O’Reilly Organ Donor Awareness Campaign. The 2019 version kicked off Thursday at Tom Davies Square.
“After years on the waiting list, she finally got the donation that changed her life,” Danica told the more than 20 people attending the press conference. “Having a new heart meant everything. She could watch her children bloom and witness the birth of her grandchildren … Because of someone’s taking the time to sign up as an organ donor, she was able to go on living.”
Danica also noted that a heart valve from her grandmother’s enlarged heart went to a young woman, helping to save that woman’s life.
In an interview, the sisters said the annual organ donor awareness campaign has shifted away from the spring awareness walk to staffing events such as the Anderson Farm Fall Fair and talking to people one-on-one.
Josee-Anne said she and her sister are finding they have to tackle myths people grew up with concerning organ donation and explaining how a person can make their wishes known about the issue.
Josee-Anne said she had a high school friend who lost her father and the decision whether to donate his organs came down to her. The friend did allow that to happen and ended up being contacted by the people who benefited from her father’s organs.
“It made her warm knowing the decision she made allowed others to live through organ donation,” said Josee-Anne.
Interesting facts that came out of the press conference included that Greater Sudbury ranks second out of 440 Ontario communities with an organ donor sign-up rate of 56 per cent, right behind North Bay-Nipissing, which has a 57 per cent rate.
The Ontario organ donor sign-up average, meanwhile, is 34 per cent, with the figures for some major cities such as Toronto and Windsor even lower at 24 and 30 per cent respectively.
Mel O’Reilly, the last surviving founding member of the Irish Heritage Club of Sudbury that was established in May 1959, said the club’s decision to raise awareness about the need for organ donation stemmed from the death of his son, Michael, 20 years ago while waiting for a double lung transplant due to cystic fibrosis. Mel noted that his son died at the age of 37 after having been on a waiting list for 18 months.
“My wife Betty and I decided we should do something to promote organ donor awareness in the City of Sudbury,” he said. “We approached the Irish Heritage Club and they agreed to do so.”
Mel said that while the City of Greater Sudbury’s 56 per cent organ donor sign-up rate translates into 85,711 people, he is optimistic the province will do like Nova Scotia did and make it law that every deceased person be considered a possible organ and tissue donor unless they have indicated otherwise.
Mel said there are currently 1,684 Ontarians waiting for new organs, the big needs being kidneys, lungs and hearts.
Dr. Mike Hartwick, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the Ottawa Hospital, who is also a regional medical lead with the Ontario Trillium Gift of Life Network (which co-ordinates organ donation in the province), said it’s great to sign up to be an organ donor, but it’s also important to tell your family members of your decision. That’s because they ultimately make the final call about what happens to you in the event of an unexpected death.
“You might be surprised to learn you are five times as likely to need a transplant than be a donor,” he said. “Sadly, there’s still more than 1,600 people in our province in need of a life-saving organ transplant. Eleven of those people live here in the Sudbury area. These people might be your friends, neighbours, colleagues, even your family. Every three days in our province, someone will die because there are not enough organs to meet the need. By indicating consent for organ donation, you have the power to save a life.”
Mayor Brian Bigger, not only signed a proclamation declaring the week of May 14-20 Organ Donor Awareness Week in the city, but helped to raise a flag with the message “beadonor.ca” in the Tom Davies Square courtyard.
“We all know there is more work to be done and there’s no denying the need for organ donor awareness,” said Bigger. “We need to reach more people and get the message that one organ donor can save eight lives and also benefit 75 others.”