Phil Gardner and his wife, Mabel, spent their last morning together in December 2018 quietly sipping coffee in their living room while their cats Gus Gus and Maggie roamed about the house.
“She said, ‘I got the coffee made, the cats have been fed, getting everything ready, we’re going to have a great day,'” he said in an interview from his home in Valley, N.S., outside Truro.
Phil Gardner left the room for a moment and then heard Mabel’s coffee cup clunk on the floor.
He found her slumped back in her chair without a pulse. He called 911 and started chest compressions. Paramedics arrived and worked on Mabel, but were not able to bring her back. She died of a heart attack, leaving Gardner reeling.
“It was a very traumatic experience, walking in the living room and finding she’s gone,” he said.
After the paramedics made the call there was nothing more they could do, one of them saw on Mabel’s MSI card that she had signed up to be an organ and tissue donor.
It was Gardner’s idea: he signed up for the donor program years ago. A year before her death, Mabel decided to join as well. When the paramedic asked Gardner if he wanted to contact the tissue bank, he agreed right away.
‘An amazing story’
By mid-morning, the donation team brought Mabel’s body to Halifax, where doctors took 25 pieces of tissues from her body before cremation.
“So she will go on and help up to 25 people, which is to me an amazing story, and it all started with the wherewithal [of the paramedic] at the time of crisis because I certainly was not in any position at that time to start thinking tissue bank,” said Gardner.
Mabel’s corneas have already helped restore sight for two people, and five other people have also been helped by her eye tissue. That’s especially meaningful for Gardner, because Mabel was blind from birth in one eye.
Staff also took 18 bone grafts, which can help people during surgery.
Dr. Michael Gross, the medical director of the tissue bank at the QEII Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, said even people who die at home can become donors if their bodies are moved to a hospital within 24 hours.
Organs such as hearts and lungs need blood to function and have to be transplanted quickly after death. Usually, the donor has to be in a hospital or very close by.
Why tissues ‘don’t have to be alive’
“Tissues, on the other hand, we can take and they don’t have to be alive,” said Gross. “We take them and we freeze them or we keep them in a solution made for corneas for some time.
“They will survive — corneas will survive a period of time — and tissues we can process and put into a freezer and keep for a long period of time.”
Tissue donation can include things such as corneas, skin, heart valves and bone grafts. A single donor can help up to 100 other people, depending on the donor’s age and the condition of their body.
Presumed consent legislation
Nova Scotia recently passed presumed consent legislation that requires people to opt out if they don’t want to be an organ donor. Over the next 12 to 18 months, health-care workers will figure out how to manage more donations.
For now, workers such as paramedics use their discretion when bringing up organ donation with a person’s family.
“It can be highly charged, highly emotional,” said Husein Lockhat, an advanced care paramedic who trains other paramedics. “We do have lots of examples though, where paramedics have asked that question and family have come back and said, ‘You know what, I wouldn’t have thought of that.’
“They’re extremely grateful and appreciative that we brought up the question because in that sort of time of distress, it wasn’t something that was at the forefront.”
Gross said the tissue bank is working on a process for educating health-care workers and the public about the presumed consent law. It won’t be in effect until it is proclaimed more than a year from now.
He said the medical workers the Gardners talked to got it right.
“We’re very sensitized to the fact that this is a terrible time, and the idea of some good coming out of a death is a subject that’s difficult to broach,” said Gross, adding he and his staff are grateful to the family and the paramedic.
How the donation helps Gardner grieve
Gardner said learning about his late wife’s donation is a comfort in his grief. He hopes more people will be open to organ donation after hearing her story.
“They can continue life after death,” he said. “It becomes a very important part of the grieving process, to know that Mabel has gone on and is helping people after death.”