I can still remember the big smile Wiebe Keulen flashed when he greeted our busload of farm visitors in 1990, before dashing off with urgency – this was Neveridle Farm. I had many great visits since that time with Art and Wilma and got to know young George as well, who was every bit as personable as the other Keulens.
George was afflicted with Cystic Fibrosis – a genetic condition that slowly and unforgivingly strangles the lungs. His CF would catch up to him in his mid-20’s and he was added to the Organ Transplant List in 2008 when his lung function dropped below 25%. It was an agonizing 18 months of waiting, with no guarantees that he would get new lungs before CF would get him. But June 2010 was the start of George’s second life – when he received his new double lungs. So many years of barely living would be replaced with his rebounding joy – he has participated in numerous walks, hikes and cycling events since, to raise awareness and funds for CF. Today, George is working as a Pastor in Langley City, where needles can be found outside their doors. But George has perspective, a deep faith and has been a true example of Living Hope. I wish I could say this was the happy ending we all love to see. But life is not always fair and some situations defy understanding. George’s wife Kim overcame her own health knock in 2016 – colon cancer. And all seemed fine until this spring. Kim’s cancer is back and she is undergoing treatments once again. Hard to wrap your head around. That’s why we need prayer.
My ever-smiling and engaging nephew Marc was a mere 23 when a virus attacked his heart and left him significantly compromised. In time, he would stabilize and function adequately, but he’d crash unexpectedly also. We nearly lost him more than once over the next ten years. One grows up fast when one faces death up close. Smiling, he continued to live life with measured involvement but would eventually reach a point in August 2017 when his heart was stopping unexpectedly, over and over. Back onto The List he went – joining more than 600 others – all waiting for an organ, because this was the only option. It would be a long and wearing 10 month wait. June 5 came the text telling me he got ‘The Call’. Shivers and sweats followed, but it was the only way forward. Marc’s years coping with heart failure caused him to meet a great many wonderful people, including Jillianne Code, a two-time transplant survivor. They would co-found the HeartLife Foundation, the only organization dedicated to heart-failure patient advocacy. As the 500th heart transplant recipient, Marc made a presentation two months after his miracle surgery at St. Paul’s Hospital, commemorating this milestone. Twenty years ago, the five-year survival rate was in the 60-65% range. Today, that survival rate has climbed to well over 80% and many are going strong after 30 years! Please read Marc and George’s personal accounts below.
Amid all this celebration, we ought not to forget that someone lost their life in order to provide the precious organ which gave life to another.
There’s just over a million people registered on the BC Organ Donor Registry, but that’s still just 25% of our population. I’ve been registered for about 30 years – back when it required forms and stamped envelopes. Now, you just have to register online: www.transplant.bc.ca – Live life. Pass it on.
A Second Chance at LIFE
By Marc Bains
I remember it clearly, June 5 at 10am. Heading home from the office, I realize I hadn’t had my Tim’s. There is a new location ahead I’ll stop at, but it’s under construction. Guess it’s to the regular spot. Then it came. The Call. The second call. “Marc, we think we have a heart for you.” Ten years living with heart failure. Ten years of ‘being sick’ - was this it? My first thought was, ‘Better call the wife.’ Second - this may not be the one. We’ve had a dry run nine months ago. Back to the call: “Is it okay if I head home and take a shower?” I could be in for a long stay. This time around I’ve been on the transplant list for 10 months. I spent a year on the transplant list about nine years ago, but they thought I’d be better to keep my compromised heart as long as possible.
After arriving at St. Paul’s about 11:30am, I headed up to 5B where I am a familiar face. The entire floor is vibrating. Everyone is happy and wishing me luck. Hoping this is the one.
Time to get on with testing. No food or drink. Really wishing I’d stopped for Tim’s! Change into my blue hospital gown. The surgeon comes in. I will never forget his joy, his confidence, his smile. His calm, cool presence puts me at ease. Blood work, x-ray, swabs, it’s now 7pm. Still no confirmation. It’s a 50/50 chance the heart will be a match.
I try to keep distracted by making calls, keeping the mood light with family and friends and trying not to be consumed by what’s next. 10:30pm. It’s time. And still not 100 percent certain, but close enough that I’m on to the OR. My heart is pounding. It’s overwhelming. I’ve been here before… just breathe. It’s time to say ‘See you later’ to the family. My wife and I head to the OR doors. This is really happening. It’s time to part ways. This is harder than I thought. Every emotion is running through my mind. This is it.
Seconds, minutes, hours pass.
June 6th, 2018: My heart, my second heart, is beating inside of me. I am alive.
Ten years of living with heart failure. Ten years of not knowing when my heart would stop. That stage in my life is over. It’s time to think about the next challenges. The coming months will still require considerable monitoring, adjusting, managing the organ rejection. I can live with a lifetime of anti-rejection meds. I feel so much gratitude for my family, my friends, my wife, the entire medical team. This journey was not traveled by me alone.
It’s not lost upon me that my life continues as the result of someone’s loss. It’s that and so much more. It’s the result of a generous, brave and amazing human being who decided that saving a life, saving my life, saving the life of someone they’ve never met was both important and possible. Become an organ donor. Save a life.
Every Breath I Take…
By George Keulen
The dream would go something like this: I would be in the middle of cutting a twenty-five acre grass field in our John Deere 4455, when suddenly, over the roar of the tractor and wailing of the mower, my beeper would begin to shriek and my belt begin to vibrate—The Call had come!
I would lift the mower, swing it behind the tractor, and race down the lane to the farm; I’d meet my wife, grab my “go bag” and we would be off to Vancouver General Hospital to receive my precious new ‘Gift of Life’ in the form of a double-lung transplant!
The reality, however, never came close to this. In early June 2010, I found myself living in St. Paul’s Hospital. Instead of cutting grass or spreading manure, I found myself unable to breathe without the help of oxygen being pushed into my nose, without the constant flow of antibiotics coursing through my veins, and without the ability to walk for more than a couple minutes without becoming breathless.
By Spring 2010 when most farming families were greasing mowers, rakes, and harvesters, my family was watching the remaining months of my life tick by; while so many other young farmers were taking on more responsibility and beginning families of their own, I was being told I had only four to six months left to live. I had already been waiting 18 months for a lifesaving double-lung transplant to rescue me from the fatal genetic illness I was born with - Cystic Fibrosis. Between November 2008 and June 2010, I had spent close to 200 days in St. Paul’s Hospital, and had come close to death a couple times. There was the time my right lung collapsed twice in one week; the time blood vessels burst in my lungs causing me to cough up copious amounts of blood; and then there was the time my antibiotic dosage was so high that I had an allergic reaction leaving me so out of breath, I could not even speak. But all that changed at 5am on a beautiful June 2010 morning. As farmers were beginning morning milking, my hospital room erupted with the news, “They found a set of lungs for you!”
It has now been eight years since my transplant and it has been an amazing journey! But this autumn also marks ten years since I last milked a cow and sat behind the wheel of a tractor; ten years since I had to walk away from a vocation that I loved because of my failing lungs. But in giving it up, I do not do so only for myself - but I do so also in honor of my donor, to live the healthiest and best life possible for him or her! It is an incredibly humbling thing to know that my lungs are not my own, but that they were given to me as a gift, and it is now my responsibility to honor that gift and life, through the life I now live.
Organ donation saves lives! Myself, Marc, and countless others in this province are living proof of that. As farmers, there may come a time when you will begin thinking about what kind of legacy you want to leave; could there be a better legacy than the precious Gift of Life? Please…. register today!