Etobian now volunteers with Trillium Gift of Life Network
Cynthia Reason | InsideToronto.com
Always active, Bishop, now 35, was doing circuit training at the University of Guelph gym when she started to feel dizzy and lost consciousness. Little did she know it at the time, but the incident was just the beginning of a five-year search for a new heart and a normal life.
"All I remember is turning to my friend and saying 'I'm really tired' and then all of a sudden I just passed out," said the Islington and Lake Shore area resident.
A visit to Student Health Services turned up a heart murmur and got her a referral to see a local cardiologist in Guelph. There, she was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which, according to the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation, is a disease that causes a thickening of the heart's walls, making it harder for it to pump blood. It's a condition known to cause sudden cardiac death in young athletes.
The news that she would probably need a heart transplant came as an "earth-shattering" blow to Bishop, whose family lived far away in Windsor: "I basically went to my little dorm room and stayed there for the next three days and cried my eyes out. They told me that basically any time I exercised, I could die. I thought my life was over."
For the next three years, Bishop lived as normal a life as she could - she continued with her studies at Guelph and took on a part-time job at a local restaurant. But while running to catch a bus one day, she started to feel strange and lightheaded. She reached down to feel her pulse, but couldn't find it. She screamed for help and an ambulance was called. At the hospital, doctors knocked her out and gave her a shock to get her heart rate back to normal.
Later that year, she was sent to Toronto to have surgery to get a defibrillator implanted. There, they told Bishop her heart was in Grade 3 failure. The defibrillator would help, but a heart transplant was now inevitable.
"When I went back to Guelph after the surgery, I had a bunch of weird rhythm things and got shocked a billion times," she said of trying to adjust to life with the implanted defibrillator. "The first time it happened, I thought I'd been shot through my back. I was actually looking for an entry wound."
Over time, things got worse. Bishop starting having mini strokes. She'd get blood clots and would lose feeling in her legs. Her vision would go blurry. By the time her condition became immediately life-threating, Bishop was living in Toronto and working at the Sheraton Centre.
One day in November 2000, as she boarded the northbound subway at St. George station on her way to the doctor's office, the shocks began: "As soon as I got on, I was like 'uh oh, I'm in trouble" because I knew when I was going to get shocked because my head would get light and my heart would race...I got seven shocks that day."
Bishop ended up lying on the floor of the subway car before her calls for help were answered by bystanders and an ambulance was called. At the hospital, doctors had to shock her again.
"That was the day I was listed for the transplant," she said. "My doctor finally said 'That's it. You were too close this time.'"
For the five months Bishop waited for the call that doctors had found her a heart, she was placed on strict bed rest. Her mom came from Windsor and moved into her small one-bedroom apartment with her, so that she could help Bishop with even the simplest of tasks - from washing her hair to dressing her. She was confined to a wheelchair.
It was from a hospital bed - where she was being treated for jaundice - on March 2, 2001 that Bishop got the call she'd been waiting for. She received her heart transplant that day. Within three days she was on her feet walking again. Within nine days she was released from hospital. Within six months she was running and jogging again.
"I got my life back," she said. "I felt better immediately - I could breathe again."
She could also get active again and took full advantage, competing in both the Canadian (2007) and World (2005) Transplant Games - winning gold medals in lawn bowling, the race walk and badminton, among others.
Bishop has also become heavily involved with the Trillium Gift of Life Network, a non-profit agency of the Government of Ontario responsible for planning, promoting, coordinating and supporting organ and tissue donation across the province. Not only has she done print and commercial ads for them, she's also done public speaking at high schools and universities. Twice, she's told her story at Trillium's annual donor memorial event - this year at the Palais Royale.
"The most touching part for me was afterwards when donor families came up and told me their stories and about the loved ones they lost," she said. "I was bawling pretty much the entire night. It was intense and amazing."
She also serves as a mentor to patients at Toronto General Hospital who are some of the approximately 1,550 people in Ontario who are currently awaiting a life-saving organ transplant, and the thousands more waiting for life-enhancing tissue. According to the Trillium Gift of Life Network, one organ and tissue donor can save up to eight lives and enhance as many as 75 others.
"There is nothing more extraordinary than giving the gift of life," said Frank Markel, president and CEO. "We all have the power to save lives by registering our consent to organ and tissue donation. There is no better time to talk about organ and tissue donation than when families are together during the holidays."
Anyone wishing to register their consent to donate their organs and tissue can do so by visiting any local ServiceOntario centre. The Gift of Life Consent Form can also be downloaded from www.giftoflife.on.ca then mailed back to the address on the form.
For Bishop, one person's decision to do just that changed her life forever.
"I'm not a sick person anymore. I've gone back to a full and productive life - I'm able to volunteer and work," she said. "It's been so important to me and my family. I'm an aunt and a godmother now."