Matters of the heart
Denise Schaerer of Vankleek Hill owes her life to a heart transplant. She told her story to Pembroke Regional Hospital staff, who are part of the Trillium Gift of Life Network, which organizes the tissue and organ donation and transplant system in Ontario.
It happened without warning, and changed Denise Schaerer's life forever.
In November, the otherwise healthy Vankleek Hill resident was battling what she thought was a cold. When it didn't get any better, she checked into the Hawkesbury Hospital where it was diagnosed as pneumonia and treated with medication.
Still not improving and being in and out of hospital, on Jan. 7 of this year Schaerer returned to Hawkesbury's ER, and was undergoing tests and scans when she collapsed in the X-ray room.
“I coded there as my heart just stopped,” she said. “I woke up in the trauma unit.”
Schaerer was transferred to the Ottawa Heart Institute where, after another battery of tests and a heart biopsy, she was diagnosed with having giant cell myocarditis, a rare and fatal inflammation of the heart which particularly affects young people.
“The treatments are either death, or transplant,” she said. With her O negative blood type, which is compatible with most blood types, and a lot of good luck, Schaerer was able to receive a donor heart within 48 hours of being put on the transplant list.
“On Jan. 17, I got a heart,” Schaerer said, but it took until Jan. 19 – 20 to fully regain her faculties. She said as soon as she was able to, the nurses and physiotherapists had her sitting up and moving.
“The first walk was so hard,” Schaerer recalled. “It was only a few steps, but I was so out of breath.” Because of the surgery, she wasn't allowed to use her arms or lift anything until she was healed, and she couldn't roll over due to the incision running down the centre of her chest.
“The first time I saw the scar, it was still dark and ugly,” she said, admitting it upset her a lot to the point she started crying. The surgeon happened to be visiting her and told her she needed to cherish the scar, because it represents the fact someone died so she could live.
'I catch myself thinking about this, how I have someone else's body part within me,” Schaerer said. “Someone passed away so I could live.”
She said that knowledge weighs on her, realizing if she had a choice, she would never want anyone to die in order for her to live. However, she is also grateful to the medical team, her friends and relatives and the donor and his family for stepping up to do this great act of generosity.
“I don't know who the donor is, but the fact someone took the time to to sign an organ donor card and register online, is incredible,” Schaerer said, noting she will forever be grateful, and hopes to contact the family one day.
Schaerer told her story Thursday afternoon to staff at the Pembroke Regional Hospital and members of the Trillium Gift of Life Network, of which the PRH is a member.
The Trillium Gift of Life Network (TGLN) is a not-for-profit agency of the Ontario government. It plans, promotes, coordinates and supports organ and tissue donation and transplantation across Ontario. Its mission is to save and enhance lives through the gift of organ and tissue donation and transplantation in Ontario.
Karen Johnson, the TGLN's director of hospital programs, said it is important for the public and the medical teams to realize the importance of the work being done in the field of organ and tissue donation and transplanting. She said by listening to stories like Schaerer's, it really brings home the message of the lives being impacted and saved by their work.
“Denise is the face of the more than 1,500 people on the waiting list for transplant,” she said, “and each day, someone dies waiting as the demand is so great and the supply so limited.”
Johnson said the average person is six times more likely to need an organ than to give one.
Francois Lemerre, PRH vice-president of patient services and the chief nursing executive, said they hospital has been working with the Trillium Gift of Life Network since 2014, and are proud to do so.
The gifts coming from the PRH has been mainly tissue donations such as corneas, and organs like kidneys and lungs. He said it is important how they approach patients and their families about tissue and organ donation, which occur during difficult times.
“At the end of the day, we meet the family's wishes,” Lemerre said. “It is a sad occasion, the loss of a loved one, but if you can make the donation happen. It can be a good thing, a great legacy to improve and save lives.”
He said these donations are a meaningful event the staff want be a part of, to make a difference.
“We are here to save lives,” Lemerre said, “and we're proud of what we have accomplished.”
Schaerer said she has a new outlook on life, being grateful for every day she wakes up alive and well. She said she keeps a positive spirit on everything.
“There is no negativity,” she said. “Every day you wake up is a bonus.”
Schaerer's friend started a fundraiser to cover her medical bills, which raised more than $10,000. The money was instead donated to the Ottawa Heart Institute, and there are plans to make it an annual event.