Harrison won a gold medal in a 3,000m race at the 2005 world transplant games. (Special to The News)

Harrison won a gold medal in a 3,000m race at the 2005 world transplant games. (Special to The News)

‘I am living proof that organ donations work’

Maple Ridge woman shares touching liver transplant story for Green Shirt Day

The results are starting to show for provincial Green Shirt Day organizers.

Celebrated annually on April 7, the day is used for promoting organ donation awareness.

In 2020, B.C. set records for lung, heart, and liver transplants with 451 organ transplant procedures completed, despite the province being in the midst of a global pandemic.

Behind those numbers are people with fascinating stories of strength, sacrifice and second chances.

Maple Ridge’s Susan Harrison, 67, was kind enough to share her story in the hopes it will inspire others to consider donating.

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Shortly after turning 40-years-old Harrison was diagnosed with primary biliary cirrhosis, a rare liver disease.

She, her husband, and two daughters, nine and 15 at the time, did not know what to make of the news.

“In the beginning we didn’t believe it,” she said. “As I’d always been completely healthy.”

Doctors told them at that time that the disease would progress slowly, and when Harrison had approximately one year to live, she would be placed on the waiting list for a liver transplant.

Over the following seven years she had to sacrifice some things in her life that she loved.

“I stopped working, and gave up my lifelong love of running,” Harrison said. “But I was still able to be a mother, and that became my focus.”

After a long period of decline, the crisis came to a head quickly.

“Everything crashed much faster than anyone could anticipate, and by the time my husband and I saw my transplant surgeon, he said he was sorry, he didn’t believe they would find a donor in time,” she said.

“I had run out of time.”

The surgeon began testing Harrison’s family members for potential donors, but tempered her expectations.

“He said the fast track process would take six weeks, and he didn’t believe I had six weeks left,” she recalled.

Five days after seeing the transplant surgeon, Harrison landed in the emergency department of the hospital, and her loved ones assumed the end was near.

“I was preparing to say goodbye to my husband and children when in a moment everything changed for us; my donor family came forward, and donated their loved ones organs,” she said.

She was not quite out of the woods yet, however.

“My condition worsened in the next few hours and my family was told that if they couldn’t stabilize me, someone else would be called in to receive this precious liver,” she said.

Thankfully, a skilled medical team worked until 3 a.m. to ensure Harrison was strong enough to survive the transplant, and the following day she endured an 11 hour surgery to give her another shot at life.

“It was a long recovery following my transplant but within a year I was running again,” she said.

On those runs, she would often think of her donor and his family. To honour them, she competed in a 3,000 metre race at the 2005 World Transplant Games.

“I won a gold medal and was able to send that medal to my donor’s family as a token of my gratitude to them for their selfless gift,” she said. ‘To this day, I try to honour my donor in every way I can.”

Since the transplant, Harrison has lived to see six grandchildren of hers come into the world.

“I am present in their lives because my donor family had the courage in their worst moment of tragedy to reach out and help a complete stranger,’ she said.

This June will mark the 20th anniversary of her second chance.

To celebrate it, Harrison plans to run a five kilometre race to give thanks to her donor.

She encourages everyone to register their wishes to be be an organ donor with BC Transplant.

“When we leave this world we can’t take our organs with us, so why not leave a hero?,” she said.

“My donor and his family are my heroes.

“Many people die waiting for their second chance,” she added. “I’m one of the lucky ones and feel that I have a responsibility to create awareness for organ donation.

“It only takes two minutes to sign up and save lives. I’m living proof that organ donation works.”

Have a story tip? Email: ronan.p.odoherty@blackpress.ca

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