Saturday, April 09, 2011

Twenty more years of life

Double lung transplant patient marking 20th anniversary of life-saving surgery

I recently had the 9-year assessment of my lung transplant in April, 2002 and feel really good about making it this far. Don Fagan's 20-year survival is certainly inspiring and I only hope my future will be as bright. (My assessment went well, showing that I remained stable from last year's assessment).

By J. T. McVeigh The Barrie Examiner
Sometimes, your hand is played for you, and occasionally you come up with four aces.

Don Fagan feels like that.

Twenty years ago he was lying in a hospital bed in Toronto near death.

Emphysema had literally taken his breath away. A smoker for most of his life, the cold chains of years of abuse tightened around his chest. Before going into hospital the then fifty-six year old couldn't walk 10 feet without having to sit down for a rest.

A relatively new surgery was introduced at the University of Toronto. It was part science-fiction and part medical miracle.

Organ transplant seemed like a dream, talked about as if about the future like flying cars and trips to Mars.

While flying cars are only creeping onto the science journals, and now a trip to Mars was well documented two years ago, implanting a donor's organs into a dying patient became a reality two dozen years ago.

Six years after the first successful double lung transplant it was Fagan's turn.

Friday, Fagan and his friends will be celebrating 20 years with the new lungs.

Twenty years that would have drifted off in April 1991 in a hospital bed in Toronto, but for the generosity of a grieving family in Ottawa who donated the lungs of their 22-year-old son struck down in his prime.

"I sit and I think of him sometimes." said a red-eyed Fagan "He would have been 42 by now, married, probably with kids if he hadn't..."

His voice drifts off on what might have been.

It is a conflict.

One dies, another lives.

"But there is something very beautiful and generous about that." said Fagan.

For three months Fagan struggled with recovery, sometimes feeling so weak he wondered if it was worth it.

"They kept us all together and it seemed every time we got together, another one was gone," said Fagan.

With the help of doctors and a psychologist, patients find that life does get better.

"Within six months I was swimming and going out to dances," recalls Fagan. "I dropped down to 120 pounds before the transplant and afterwards climbed to 220 before the doctors put their thumb down on that."

After recovery, Fagan became an advocate for organ and tissue donation.

He was part of a group that changed the organ donor card from being an addendum on a drivers licence, to a sign up on the Ontario Health Card obtained from Service Ontario offices.

And he met challenges, people who were spooked by the thought of giving up their organs, concerned that they were going to feel pain or even be harvested before the patient died.

"They can't, won't do anything until the person has died, doctors don't know where the organs come from, they don't order up the parts." he said.

"But you have to push, push them (medical staff) to make the donation, doctors won't.

Wearing a T-shirt with 'Don't take your organs to Heaven. Heaven knows we need them here.' Fagan is still moved to tears by the generosity of his donor's family.

Donors and recipients identities are kept anonymously, one doesn't know the name or the hometown either way, but there is correspondence allowed through the families and forwarded through the donor office.

"I wrote to them after a time, thanking them for what they had done." said Fagan. "No names or anything, they check to make sure you identity is off of the letter."

Taking a deep breath he remembers "They wrote back and said they hoped I would take good care of the lungs." His eyes reddening he whispered, "I think I have."

The week of April 17th is National Organ and Tissue donation awareness (in Canada), and it seems appropriate that Fagan celebrates his own transplant and birthday in the same month.

Friday, at Simcoe Terrace Retirement Centre on Donald Street, friends, guests and even the mayor are stopping by to celebrate with Fagan.

Ever the advocate, Fagan has invited everyone to join him at 2 p.m.

And if they have any questions about the donation or transplant program Fagan vows to steer them right.

"The celebration shouldn't just be for me, but for him (the donor) as well." said Fagan. "If it wasn't for him I wouldn't be here."

“You Have the Power to Save Lives – Register to be an organ and tissue donor & Tell Your Loved Ones of Your Decision”
Register to be a donor in Ontario at Trillium Gift of Life Network NEW for Ontario: - Learn The Ins & Outs Of Organ And Tissue Donation. Register Today!
For other Canadian provinces click here
In the United States, be sure to find out how to register in your state at or Download Donor Cards from OrganDonor.Gov
In Great Britain, register at NHS Organ Donor Register
In Australia, register at Australian Organ Donor Register
Your generosity can save or enhance the lives of up to fifty people with heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas and small intestine transplants (see allotransplantation). One tissue donor can help by donating skin, corneas, bone, tendon, ligaments and heart valves

Has your life been saved by an organ transplant? "Pay it forward" and help spread the word about the need for organ donation - In the U.S. another person is added to the national transplant waiting list every 11 minutes and 18 people die each day waiting for an organ or tissue transplant. Organs can save lives, corneas renew vision, and tissue may help to restore someone's ability to walk, run or move freely without pain. Life Begins with You

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