Gift of life a wrenching decision
Susan Pigg | LIVING REPORTER | Healthzone.ca
Mary Handyside had always been too superstitious to fill out an organ donor card. Instead she used to scrawl a little note on the form she carried in her wallet, giving her husband final say.
“I'd look at that card and think, if I sign it, it's bad luck,” says the now 47-year-old Oakville woman.
But Handyside was forced to face her fears last September when her husband, Brian Knox, 47, was left brain dead after complications from an internal bleed.
Almost two weeks after he was admitted to hospital for what he at first thought was a severe headache, Handyside's husband was dead, but his organs and tissue were still alive thanks to life-support machines. And they had the potential to save eight other lives.
“In a situation where you go through so many different emotions — and we went through them all over that time in hospital — the only thing that made sense was for Brian to be a donor,” says Handyside. “I just felt like I didn't get my miracle (a full recovery), but somebody should get a miracle.”
Knox, the former general manager of marketing for HBC (Hudson's Bay Co.) was among the mere 17 per cent of Ontarians who've registered their wishes to be donors. Rarer still, he'd talked about it with Handyside and his stepson, Christopher Gaudreau, 22.
But Handyside never imagined it was a decision she'd have to face, especially after Knox was wheeled out of emergency surgery at Mississauga's Trillium Health Centre last August and appeared to be on the mend from a brain bleed that doctors still don't fully understand.
Everyone knew the first 24-hours were critical and as the hours and then the days passed by, Knox was even able to give a thumbs up, which family and friends took to mean the worst was over.
But a second bleed almost two weeks later shocked even the nurses in the intensive care unit and expected a full recovery.
At 2 a.m. on Sept. 7, Handyside and her son were summoned to the hospital.
“The minute I walked into the room, I knew he was gone. Then they did the dreaded four chairs in a room,” says Handyside. “When they do that, you know it's bad.”
To this day, Handyside can't recall much of what a doctor and nurse told her, other than the words “brain dead.” “I can remember word for word,” says Gaudreau, breaking down in tears.
As Handyside crumpled to the floor in shock, she remembers her son scooping her up and saying: “Mom, we have to think about Brian now and what he would want.”
At the family's request, a call went out to Trillium Gift of Life Network, the provincial agency that oversees organ donation, and Ida Bevilacqua, one of 19 specially trained organ-and-tissue-donation coordinators, was dispatched to the hospital.
By 6 a.m. the nurse and mother of two young children had reviewed Knox's medical charts and determined he was a suitable organ donor.
Then she sat with Handyside and her son as almost two dozen of Knox's friends and relatives came to say their goodbyes. Complications withdrawing life support and rounding up a transplant team meant what would normally have taken just hours stretched into days with Handyside and Gaudreau determined to be by Knox's side right until the end.
On Sept. 10 at 4 p.m., Handyside and Gaudreau, surrounded by family clad in sterile hospital gowns, stood by as Knox was taken off life support. But his heart proved to be so strong, it kept beating for 11 more hours — nine hours too long to make his organs viable for transplant.
At times the wait was so excruciating, Handyside admits, that had it not been for her son's determination, she would likely have given up on fulfilling her husband's last wishes.
But Gaudreau was insistent and knew that not all was lost — Knox's tissue and bones were still viable and could help more than 75 people, including burn victims awaiting vital skin grafts.
“There are times I look back and wonder how we got through it. But we got through because it was the right thing to do,” says Handyside, who credits her son with keeping her true to her husband's wishes.
“I just did what Brian wanted,” says Gaudreau.
“It makes me feel good that Brian was able to help out others in the end. It's almost like he's living on through other people.”
In the fog of grief and heartache Handyside and her son have felt since Knox's unexpected death, they've found one tiny ray of hope — speaking out on behalf of Trillium Gift of Life and the 1,500 people now on the waiting list for organs and tissue in Ontario.
Gaudreau is not as comfortable as his mother is speaking in front of others so he advocates for organ donation in his own quiet way.
This winter he's taking a break from studying fitness health promotion at Humber College to work at the family's favourite ski resort, Blue Mountain.
You may see him up there, riding the rails or careening down black runs on a snowboard unlike any other: It's covered in pictures of his beloved stepdad Brian Knox and the iconic green ribbon of Trillium Gift of Life.
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