Margaret Lynch is an MFA student in the creative non-fiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
'Tis the season for gift shopping. That time of year when we flock online, a Pavlovian response to slick advertising. We search shopping malls and stalk special one-day-only sale racks, spending hours seeking the perfect gift. But what if we didn’t have to search? What if we already carried the perfect gift within us?
Less than one-quarter of Canadians have registered to donate organs, but 90 per cent of Canadians say they support organ donation. Presumed consent is a potential solution to increase donors, meaning that people need to opt out if they don’t want their organs donated. Nova Scotia has already passed this legislation, to take effect in 2020. Alberta, Quebec and Prince Edward Island seem poised to follow suit.
The decision to donate is complicated, but all I can think about are the eight people whose lives I might save.
I was 30 years old in January, 1988. One minute, I was in my office on a frigid day where skyscraper vents exhaled plumes of white smoke that rearranged themselves against a wintry-grey Toronto sky. The next, I was at a walk-in clinic listening to the young doctor with long, blonde hair speak the words that forever changed my life.
“You have acute leukemia,” she said. “You need to go to a hospital today.” At least I had an answer for my sluggish performance on the squash court.
Within an hour, I was admitted to Toronto General Hospital, wheeled into a room with two single beds and hooked up to a bag of blood, my first transfusion. Leukemia is a blood cancer. Abnormal cells produced in the bone marrow suppress the production of normal blood cells. Transfusions are critical for people with this and other blood disorders.
I watched winter unfold like a silent movie projected through the windows of my room. Swirling snow and howling winds raged outside. Inside, there was a sameness to the days. Blood tests and transfusions, doctors and drugs.
From January to June that year, I was transfused almost every second day. Months of chemotherapy decimated my bone marrow, causing collateral damage to my cells. I learned a lot about biology that year. Mustard-yellow platelets helped my blood to clot, so I wouldn’t hemorrhage while I waited for my own to recover. Crimson-coloured packed cells increased my hemoglobin and iron levels to improve my body’s oxygenation. Greenish-yellow plasma transported essential nutrients, hormones and proteins throughout my body.
I received 157 units of packed red blood cells, platelets, fresh frozen plasma and albumin. Each unit represented a blood donation from someone I did not know. I am beyond grateful to each and every person who generously donated their blood to me.
Though blood transfusions kept me alive, clinical trials and chemotherapy had failed to put me in remission. In May, 1988, I received another type of transfusion. On that day, my sister’s ruby-red liquid bone marrow hung from an IV pole. Its contents dripped into a central vein in my chest through a Hickman line. I watched it and felt something I hadn’t felt in four months: hope.
A bone-marrow transplant is the stuff of science fiction. Bone marrow is the soft tissue inside bones that produces blood-forming stem cells. The stem cells retrieved from my sister’s marrow navigated into my own marrow where they regenerated as healthy blood cells. I’m always reminded of the submarine crew in the 1966 movie, Fantastic Voyage, who were shrunk to microscopic size and ventured into the body of an injured scientist to repair damage.
Incredibly, the procedure cured my leukemia. To my sister, Mary: Thank you for giving me back my life.
I was lucky in 1988, still early days for the science of bone-marrow transplantation. Much has changed in the intervening years. Today, we know that stem-cell transplants can treat more than eighty diseases and disorders.
Three decades ago, I could only obtain a transplant because I’d sourced my own matching sibling donor. Today, less than 25 per cent of people who require transplants will find a matching donor within their family. The rest rely on the generosity of unrelated donors. Canada participates in an international network of stem-cell registries with access to 36 million potential donors worldwide.
Because of my medical history, I’m not an eligible blood donor, nor can I register for the stem-cell registry. But I can donate my organs, knowing my gift will be perfect for the person who needs it.
This year, I skipped the mall. Instead, I registered my consent to help save lives by becoming an organ and tissue donor.