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Liver donation an ‘emotional experience’ for Ottawa Sports Pages director Dan Plouffe

Read news story in Ottawa Citizen: Local man’s liver donation gives nurse her life back

Listen to Dan’s interview on CityNews’s Sam Laprade Show below:

By Dan Plouffe

I was truly shocked that someone who looked so frail could squeeze my hand so tightly. Not long removed from the ICU, Pam Hopkins-Dargavel wasn’t able to speak many words, but I’ll never forget the look in her eye when we first met, and it said everything.

It’s been an emotional few weeks since I donated half of my liver to Pam on March 20. I’m used to daily highs and lows – in covering sports, in raising my six- and seven-year-olds – but this experience reminded me that there’s a whole other world of people living through especially difficult circumstances.

Dan Plouffe and Pam Hopkins-Dargavel meet in recovery at the Toronto General Hospital’s organ transplant unit. Photo: Greg Dargavel

Having a low-functioning liver for a few days gave me a window into what Pam experienced for years, except I was getting better every day and she’d been getting worse. Pam and her family have been through tremendous challenges in recent years.

(The Ottawa Citizen‘s Andrew Duffy did a great job capturing it in his stories if you’d like to know more. Pam needed a liver transplant after hers had been debilitated by Hepatitis, contracted from an accidental needle prick when she worked as a nurse.)

Another moment that hit me came when I was starting to really miss my family after three days in hospital in Toronto. I met a PSW who was going to be reunified with his wife and son that night after three years apart.

My roommate (and fellow Sens fan – what are the chances?) was a double lung transplant recipient. That’s now a relatively routine procedure after the world’s first was performed at the Toronto General in 1986. Researchers and doctors made it possible for living liver transplants to be executed. My liver will regrow to full size in both me and in Pam within weeks. We marvelled at what’s possible.

A few people called me a hero when I told them why I was having surgery, which left me fumbling for a reply. “You’re saving a life, Dan, that makes you a hero.” I still feel really awkward about it, mostly because this really wasn’t that hard to do.

At the entrance to the Toronto General’s transplant wing are a collection of milestone moments for their program, including double-lung transplant recipient and organ donation advocate Hélène Campbell of Ottawa dancing with her doctors. Selfie by Dan Plouffe

To me, the calculation made sense: spend a week or two in fairly rough shape, another six weeks walking instead of running, then back to normal. In return, someone who’s endured a lot of bad years gets a chance at living many good years.

Yes, I’m proud of myself for stepping up, but I’m mostly just grateful. I was fortunate to be in good enough health to donate, I was lucky enough to have the proper internal body mechanics for the surgery (only some people do), I was well supported by everyone around me, and I shared Pam’s rare blood type.

Feeling a personal connection to Pam for sure motivated me to act. Pam’s daughter and I were friends in high school and my wife’s worked with her on occasion in their jobs. Pam worked at the Ottawa Hospital, where my mom’s volunteered tirelessly all my life (she definitely taught me how to step up and help).

Huge thank you to Duffy and the Citizen for telling Pam’s story, and other local media too. I wouldn’t have known Pam was in need otherwise, so this actually doesn’t happen without you. I hope others waiting for transplants will share their stories too, and I encourage efforts to help people who may not know where to start.

Personal storytelling is critical. If I tell you there are over 4,000 Canadians on wait-lists to receive organ transplants, well, that number may well resonate – it’s pretty alarming. If I tell you there are 4,000+ Canadians who have a story like Pam’s in some way, that might mean even more.

I owe many more thank yous, but a big one definitely goes to the donor transplant team at the Toronto University Health Network. Our health care system may have some shortcomings, but it sure isn’t the people, they do unbelievable work.

The Plouffe family’s G.O.A.T. Christmas photo, never to be surpassed.

Thank you to former Ottawa Sports Pages Editor Charlie Pinkerton for stepping in while I was down, and to Martin Cleary for continuing to deliver stories on our local sports community every day.

And thank you of course to my supportive family – especially my superhero wife Cheryl, and my kids and their grandparents for all their help, and to the Dargavels and everyone involved for your support too.

If someone wants to use that “hero” word for me, then you all definitely have to wear it with me, because you were instrumental in saving a life. And not just one life – several others have received livers as a result of Pam sharing her story. Pam’s amazing husband Greg also thanked me for giving him the chance to get his life back as well.

Now, we’ve also got the chance to save a lot more lives.

For every transplant that occurred in Canada in 2021 (2,782), another 1.5 patients were waiting to receive an organ. In Ontario, someone dies every three days because they did not get their transplant in time.

If you’ve ever lost a loved one in your family, you know how painful that is. These deaths are preventable.

I hope I can inspire some others to step forward and become living liver or kidney donors. I’m not sure there are many actions you can take in life that are more impactful for another person than that.

But I’d definitely like everyone reading this to register as an organ/tissue donor. It takes two minutes and you can keep up to eight people alive after your death.

Only 32 per cent of Canadians are currently registered to donate. A little (unscientific) math suggests that we could clear the wait list if it was 80 per cent.

Provincial governments could likely save all these lives with legislation too. Nova Scotia flipped the table with its 2021 Human Organ and Tissue Donation Act, which makes everyone in the province a donor unless they opt out.

Organ donation by default seems very Canadian to me – let’s make it happen.

Pam still has a long road to recovery ahead. When I was gearing up to go home, she’d just had her breathing tube removed a day earlier.

We’re looking forward to the idea of our families having dinner together come the summer. There’s still a ways to go, but for the moment I’m just thankful we’ve got that hope. For sure I saw hope in Pam’s eyes too.

Learn more about living liver or kidney donation here, and register to save up to eight lives by donating organs after your death here.

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