Top News

Newfoundland organ donor advocate aims to increase access to live donations

“I have always believed in this hospital. I’ve always felt like this was always more than a hospital: it was a community, it was home, it was a support,” says Heather Lannon.
“I have always believed in this hospital. I’ve always felt like this was always more than a hospital: it was a community, it was home, it was a support,” says Heather Lannon. - Contributed

Love, loss, and advocacy

After spending years yearning to return to her native Newfoundland, Heather Lannon again finds herself walking the halls of the Toronto General Hospital (TGH).

It is the hospital where her husband, Jamie Wilkinson, fought his long battle with a rare heart defect.

And it is also the hospital where he died in 2017.

Now, after some time at home, Heather is back in Toronto working to help patients with organ transplants — the latest twist in her and Jamie’s story of love, loss, and advocacy.

‘Give people another option’

Heather Lannon with her late husband, Jamie Wilkinson.
Heather Lannon with her late husband, Jamie Wilkinson.

Heather was recently hired as the outreach coordinator for the Centre for Living Organ Donation, which is under the umbrella of the hospital’s transplant program.

These days, her focus is making Atlantic Canadians in need of an organ transplant — from St. John’s, NL to Halifax, NS to Charlottetown, PEI and all points in between — aware that a live organ donation could be an option for them.

“It’s kind of wild, when you think about it,” said Heather, adding her life has come full circle.

“To come back and be able to help other Jamies is a really cool position to be in. I think I bring something different to the table. I think like a patient.”

The centre was created in 2018 and aims to improve access for live liver and kidney transplants.

“The reason we’re looking to the East Coast is that we have no options in the east for live liver transplants,” she explained. “We’re trying to give people another option.”

The centre is also approaching health officials in Western Canada.

Currently, the Multi-Organ Transplant Program (MOTP) at the QEII Health Services Centre in Halifax provides transplants for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.

MOTP has the capability for liver, heart, kidney and pancreas transplants — but there’s a catch.

“We do not perform living donor liver transplants in Halifax,” explained Katherine Connell, the interim health services director for the central zone.

She added that 29 Atlantic Canadians are currently on MOTP’s liver waiting list.

“It’s not jumping the line, but getting you to your destination a lot faster.”

- Dr. Nazia Selzner

Why live donors?

After spending years at the Toronto General Hospital as her late husband, Jamie Wilkinson, waited for a heart transplant, Heather Lannon has taken a job with the hospital’s Centre for Living Organ Donation.
After spending years at the Toronto General Hospital as her late husband, Jamie Wilkinson, waited for a heart transplant, Heather Lannon has taken a job with the hospital’s Centre for Living Organ Donation.

For some people, waiting for an organ — especially a liver — is not possible.

Dr. Nazia Selzner, the medical director for the TGH’s live liver program, said that between 30 to 35 per cent of people waiting on a liver die before their name is called.

Exploring live donation is one way to expedite the transplant process and cut down on waitlists.

“It’s not jumping the line, but getting you to your destination a lot faster,” she said.

In fact, the average person can spend up to a year on a waitlist while a live donation can be processed in around eight weeks, once a referral is accepted.

Other benefits include planned surgeries and healthier organs as they aren’t coming from cadavers.

“Typically, to be a donor — especially for the liver — you have to use donors that are younger, completely healthy and have no other medical condition,” said Selzner.

And although the centre is new, Selzner stressed that the hospital has been performing live organ transplants for years.

Over 800 living donor transplants have been completed at the hospital since 1990, with zero deaths.

“In North America, our Toronto program is by far the largest program. We have huge expertise and experience in live donation,” she said.

For people in need of an organ, the whole process starts with a referral from the medical specialist in your community to the TGH’s transplant programs.

“The recipient has to be referred to our program,” explained Heather.

How to help?

Heather Lannon with her late husband, Jamie Wilkinson.
Heather Lannon with her late husband, Jamie Wilkinson.

Donors can sign up by completing an online form, specifying the living donation options; family, friends, and even complete strangers can sign up to be live donors.

Through her new role, said Heather, she is using the experience she shared with Jamie to help other families in need.

“I have always believed in this hospital. I’ve always felt like this was always more than a hospital: it was a community, it was home, it was a support,” she said.

And when asked what Jamie would say if he knew she’d left Newfoundland again? Heather could only laugh.

“I think he’d be shocked I came back to Toronto . . . but I think he’d be really proud.”

The TGH’s transplant program is one of the largest in the world, performing one quarter of all transplants across the country.

More information about live organ donation is available at https://www.uhn.ca/Transplant/Living_Donor_Program.

RELATED:

Recent Stories