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George Keulen, who received a double-lung transplant because of cystic fibrosis, is photographed during a walk in the Watershed Park in Delta, British Columbia, on Jan. 21, 2017.

Rafal Gerszak

George Keulen was 28 years old when he was told he had only a few months to live. The cystic fibrosis he had been battling his entire life was taking over, leaving him unable to walk more than 20 steps without gasping for breath.

With his lungs functioning at 20 per cent, Mr. Keulen's sole chance of survival – a double lung transplant – depended on a perfect stranger.

"Waiting for a transplant is incredibly frustrating, and you start to lose hope pretty quickly," said Mr. Keulen, who spent a total of 200 days at Vancouver's St. Paul's Hospital before he received a new pair of lungs on June 28, 2010.

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Mr. Keulen's surgery was one of 295 transplants done in British Columbia that year, and the province recently announced that the rate has increased. This past year, 423 people received organs, the highest number of transplants performed in a single year in the province.

British Columbia's transplant rate was once among the lowest in the country, but it has climbed steadily. In 2014, B.C. had the fourth-highest number of transplants countrywide, behind Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.

Ontario is still at the top, with 1,100 transplants in 2016, but B.C. is also a leader, with 20.3 for every million of the population registered to be donors – well above the national rate of 18.2 donors for every million. B.C. also also marked other milestones this past year, including the most lung and heart transplants in a year, and one million people officially registered in the Organ Donor Registry.

"We have gone from one of the worst in the country in terms of transplant rates to as good as the best," said David Landsberg of St. Paul's Hospital, head of the province's renal transplant program.

Dr. Landsberg and his team attribute the record-breaking year to more education and awareness about organ donation both inside and outside hospitals. Donation co-ordinators are stationed in hospitals to remind people about organ donations.

"We're certainly pleased with these numbers, but we think we can do even better," Dr. Landsberg said. "Transplant programs also grow by experience, so as we do more transplants, it leads to more success."

The supply of available organs has increased recently because of the province's opioid crisis, which killed more than 900 people last year.

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Dr. Landsberg said 25 per cent of the deceased donors that have come into the program so far in 2017 had overdoses.

He said that the phenomenon is a tragedy, "but for patients who have been in desperate need of transplants, it's been a blessing."

All organs are tested for diseases, but recipients are still advised when an organ comes from someone who engaged in high-risk behaviour, he added.

Despite last year's success, 651 British Columbians are still waiting for transplants.

"We had a strong year, but we need everyone's help to do even better," said Sean Keenan, medical director for donations and services at BC Transplant. "We are nowhere near our potential."

Mr. Keulen, now 34, has high hopes for even more improvement to the program that saved his life. Since his double lung transplant six years ago, he has hiked Vancouver's Grouse Grind and biked across British Columbia twice to raise money for cystic fibrosis research.

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"It sounds so cliché that you're given a second chance at life, but you truly are," said Mr. Keulen. "It's so powerful to go from a place where you know you're going to die to a place where all of the sudden literally you can go back and do anything you want in life."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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