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By Matthew Le Blanc

Plastic, cardboard and glass are all recyclable, but did you know body parts are too? Initially it may sound disturbing, but donating your organs and tissue is something all too real.

Every day, roughly 1700 people wait for the arrival of the one thing that would make them whole again. It could be a liver, skin tissue, or even a heart. Whatever it is, a successful transplant can completely change a recipient’s life.

“If it weren’t for someone’s compassion, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” said Grant Hagerty, who is one of many people to have received a lung transplant at the hands of Ontario’s central organ and tissue donation agency, the Trillium Gift of Life Network.

In 1986, Hagerty was diagnosed with sarchoidosis of the lungs, which is an auto-immune disease that causes inflammation and scarring to the affected organ’s tissues. At first, symptoms are barely noticeable; however, they begin to worsen as time goes by. Hagerty said that over the span of five years, he saw himself go from being a healthy young man to someone that was dependant on the use of an oxygen tank.

“In 1986, I’m sort of in my 30’s and still fairly active, living in denial…not paying an awful lot of attention to it,” recalled Hagerty. “I’m a pretty active guy and a runner so I’m running nine minute miles and all of a sudden I’m dogging 12 minute miles. Then I’m finding it even difficult to jog, so I’m trying to speed walk and after a while I’m not even capable of speed walking anymore. All of a sudden I’m going to the doctor and having further checkups.”

As time passed, Hagerty developed pulmonary fibrosis (scarring of the lungs) and in 2002 was diagnosed with early pulmonary hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs). Hagerty described the affliction as a screen being clogged with scar tissue. The buildup of tissue then makes the right side of the heart work overtime to pump oxygenated blood through the blockage.

Three years later in 2005, his condition worsened and required supplementary oxygen 24 hours a day. By early 2006, Hagerty was no longer able to work. He said activities like putting his shoes on and washing himself were beginning to become difficult.

Hagerty’s physician soon had him on the transplant waiting list. It took five months before a donated lung was available and ready for transplantation.

“August 2006, I had my surgery [and] within 48 hours I was out of bed,” Hagerty said about his recovery. “Within 78 hours I was back in the treadmill room. I’m out of the hospital in 11 days and back at work in three months.”

Hagerty credits his second chance at having a life to the compassion of the anonymous donor he will never have a chance to meet.

“Someone got to somebody and thought it was the right thing to do,” said Hagerty. “As a result of doing it, all the positive things that have happened in the last four and a half years have been a reality…I simply would not be alive today.”

Statistics say that somebody dies every three days waiting for an organ transplant making Hagerty a very fortunate man. Some recipients can find themselves on the waiting list for years before their opportunity arrives. The longer they wait, the worse their condition becomes, making the need that much greater.

“There are almost 1700 people on the waiting list and in our best year for donors we recovered organs from only 218 patients,” says Nancy Hemrica, who is an Organ and Tissue Donation Coordinator with the Trillium Gift of Life Network. “One donor can save up to eight lives through donating.”

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Hemrica says the main issues surrounding organ and tissue donation is the lack of public awareness and hospital participation.

Despite the majority of Ontarians indicating that they support organ and tissue donation, only 17 per cent have registered their consent to donate. However, since the creation of Trillium in 2000, the number of both living and deceased donors that have donated at least one organ has increased from 404 per year to 563.

Most of what’s in your body can be recycled, improving the quality of life for a recipient. The benefits of donating also cause a ripple effect, affecting family members and people who may one day require a transplant.

“[Transplants] allow people to return and actively participate in society and relieves people of the terrible burden of living with chronic illness,” says Hemrica on the benefits of donating. “From a donor side, it gives families the opportunity to honour the final wishes of their loved one and do something meaningful and timeless out of their grief and loss. Also if a patient receives a kidney transplant, for example, it saves the health care system about $50,000 in the first year alone.”

For someone like Grant Hagerty, a lung transplant gave him a second chance at life. After spending much of his adult years short of breath, he was once again able to ski and return to bike riding. All of these things would have been impossible if it weren’t for someone’s donation.

Since his surgery, Hagerty has worked with Hemrica and Trillium, becoming a passionate transplant advocate and giving back where he can. When he’s not working, he donates time to Trillium by attending events and speaking to help promote organ and tissue donation. Hagerty also helped to form the Life Donation Awareness Association in his hometown of Waterloo.

“It’s a shame that I couldn’t do more to help people who have been in a similar situation as me and simply didn’t have the good fortune that I’ve had because there wasn’t an opportunity to diffuse some of the misconceptions,” Hagerty says, admitting he too was against the idea of transplantation at first. “It’s really a shame to see something like that happen. I do the best I can to pay it forward.”

The power to give life may sound godly, but the fact is, it rests in your hands. Some people’s reaction toward organ and tissue donation may be negative, but even if it makes your skin crawl, improving the quality of someone’s health is as simple as volunteering yourself one piece at a time.

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