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A kidney is prepared for transplant at at a Toronto hospital in 2007. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
A kidney is prepared for transplant at at a Toronto hospital in 2007. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Donation Debate

The Tory MP, his dying wife and the five lives saved with her organs Add to ...

It was election night and it was shaping up to be a very good night for Harold Albrecht. He was headed toward his third victory as the Conservative MP for Kitchener–Conestoga in Southwestern Ontario.

But as he and his wife, Betty, watched the returns on television, she suddenly collapsed. Later, she died in hospital of a spontaneous intracranial hemorrhage.

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Mr. Albrecht told his story Monday night in the House of Commons. It was close to 11 p.m. when he took to the floor of the Commons, however, and so it’s doubtful many people were listening.

Too bad. What Canadians usually hear from the House are the heckles and insults traded back and forth during Question Period. But at this late hour, Mr. Albrecht was participating in the “take note” debate on organ donation. He was one of the last MPs to speak.

A religious man, Mr. Albrecht talked passionately and personally about the decision he made on election night in May to donate his wife’s organs. There was not a hint of politics or partisanship in his remarks.

The debate was inspired by the situation facing Garry Keller. The 35-year-old chief of staff to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird recently went public with his plea for a living kidney donor.

Seven years ago, Mr. Keller suffered kidney failure and has been on dialysis ever since. Recently, his doctors informed him that dialysis could soon harm his other organs and that he really needed to start actively looking for a donor.

“It was clear that Betty’s physical life was over,” Mr. Albrecht said, recalling that night. “Brain activity had stopped completely. We knew instinctively that the Betty we had come to know and love was no longer there. Her spirit was still very much alive but her body was only breathing with mechanical help. What to do?”

He and his wife of 39 years had often talked about organ donation every time they renewed their drivers licenses. And he knew that her wish was that if she could help, she would.

“Again, our faith has its foundation in the Christian scriptures, which uses many different metaphors for the physical body,” Mr. Albrecht said. “It is referred to as a tent, a house, a temple, or even as clothing for the spirit within. So if the person who lived in that temple or had occupied that house or camped in that tent was no longer here to need any of those things, why would we not share them with someone in need?”

There was a downside, though, Mr. Albrecht noted. Keeping his wife alive by machines as tests were carried out was difficult. But he said that officials from the Trillium Gift of Life Network, plus his own faith and that of his family, helped him through.

As a result, five people were helped because of the Albrechts’ decision. Betty’s heart, liver, lungs and her two kidneys were transplanted.

MPs from all parties participated in the Monday night debate. There was no vote. No legislation stemmed from it. Rather, it was a way for parliamentarians to highlight the need for organ donation and encourage Canadians to sign donor cards.

More than 4,000 Canadians are waiting for organ transplants. Last year only 1,803 transplants were performed and 200 people died waiting for an organ, according to information provided during the debate.

As Mr. Albrecht noted, health is under the provincial purview but he suggested MPs could raise the issue in the brochures they send around to their constituents to “point out that there is an urgent need.”

He added: “I know that because of our decision to donate there are now at least five people enjoying fuller, richer lives and even more who are benefitting from tissues transplanted.

“We are in a death-defying society. No one wants to think he or she will die before 80 or 90, because of amazing medical advancements many people will live to that age or even beyond. However, we have no guarantee as my family discovered so quickly and with no warning of any kind.”

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