In April, 2014, Dr. Jennifer Bender told The Globe and Mail about watching preparations for a potential organ donor abruptly stop when the family members involved decided against the donation. As an anesthesiologist, she said it was difficult to see the potentially life-saving process come to a halt.
"There is a bit of a sense of waste," Dr. Bender told The Globe at the time. "To take that little bit of hope and then just turn it all off, and see it wash away, is a bit sad."
Now, in the wake of Dr. Bender's own sudden death this month and the donation of her organs, it couldn't be more clear that she meant every word.
"She was talking the talk last year and now she's walking the walk," says Dr. Peter Menikefs, chief of the department of anesthesia at St. Joseph's Health Centre in Toronto, where Dr. Bender worked for more than a decade. "To practise what you preach and all the clichés you might use – it doesn't get any more explicit than this."
Jennifer Bender died June 19 after collapsing a week earlier during one of her regular Friday swim workouts. At 41, her death comes far too soon, but her choice to be an organ donor may have saved up to eight other lives. According to the Trillium Gift of Life Network, the organization that manages the organ and tissue transplant system in Ontario, there are more than 1,600 people in the province waiting for an organ transplant. Only about a quarter of eligible donors are registered.
While they're still reeling from the shock of her death, Dr. Bender's colleagues and friends say there is some comfort in the knowledge that her wishes, as an "adamant supporter" of organ donation, have been honoured. And it serves as another reminder to make their own plans with their families.
"I believe that as physicians ourselves, particularly people who work in operating rooms … when you see what good comes of [organ donation], it's hard to envision how one could say no when you're sitting in our position," Dr. Menikefs says.
At St. Joseph's, Dr. Bender was known as a highly skilled and capable presence – the kind of physician who immediately reassured everyone when she walked into the operating room. For Vickie Hiltz, a St. Joseph's dietitian, Dr. Bender was a "go-to" friend and caregiver. Dr. Bender was in charge of Ms. Hiltz's anesthesia through two operations and the births of both her children, the first person she called when her water broke in the middle of the night. "I couldn't imagine anyone else," Ms. Hiltz says. "I was safe in her hands."
Dr. Bender brought the same dedication to her own family. Having children hadn't come easily for her and her husband, Jason Smith, and she was devoted to her young sons Owen and Connor. While she worked full time and was often on call, she always took Mondays and Fridays off for the sake of spending time with her family. "She was the only doctor I knew that didn't have a full-time nanny," Ms. Hiltz says. "She was the hands-on person all the time. She was the glue."
Dr. Bender's death was especially shocking for people who knew her, and knew how seemingly healthy she was. She was an endurance athlete who cycled nearly everywhere, and she ran marathons before switching to triathlons three years ago. Sometimes she would take her older son for long rides on the back of her bike, bringing him along for the annual 75-kilometre Cycle 4 St. Joe's fundraiser, which she also helped organize.
While organ donation is something families usually discuss privately, Ms. Hiltz said the loss of another friend a few years ago spurred direct conversations between them. "I knew she was a donor. We're all donors," Ms. Hiltz says. "You never think you're going to realize that so young, but we talked openly about it," she said. "I knew 100 per cent where she stood on that."
In a remembrance she wrote for Dr. Bender, Ms. Hiltz says her friend was someone "in a constant state of ascension." Dr. Menikefs agrees, describing her as "the type of person who wanted more out of everything." For anyone who knew Dr. Bender, they say, there's no doubt about the certainty of her choice – a tribute to the warmth she exuded in life.
"If there's any hope or meaning we can gain from this to pass on to her kids," Dr. Menikefs says, "it's that whatever happened to Jennifer, she has helped improve the quality and longevity of other lives."