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Legacy of Life

A close-up of a pair of hands

This very special story is written by an organ donor's family member for Nova Scotia's Organ and Tissue Donation Program, Legacy of Life.

My partner passed away in hospital while recovering from surgery in 2021. Prior to the surgery she was well aware of the risks involved and was adamant about me fulfilling her wish to become an organ donor should the surgery not be successful or if there were complications that resulted in her having to be put on life support. She was a very giving and unselfish person and I was not surprised by her generosity to help anyone if there was any way that she could.

As soon as it was medically determined that she would not recover I requested that she be considered for organ donation and the process was put into place. In a few days her wish came true for four recipients and likely for more through her tissue donation.  

I know that not everyone would want to meet recipients of their loved one's organs, but I had decided early in the process that I would like to meet them if the opportunity was available. I had spoken to family and friends and received varying opinions on whether or not they would want to meet a recipient if they were in my situation. The majority didn’t feel they could do it, for a variety of reasons, but they respected and supported my decision. My motive for wanting to meet a recipient was to give some insight into the wonderful person my partner was and maybe alleviate any curiosity about her or answer any questions they had. I admit I was also curious about who the recipients were and often wondered how they were doing.

Initially I reached out through the Legacy of Life Family Support Program to write a short anonymous letter to each recipient about my partner and to let them know that I was happy for them and that my partner would have been too. I knew there was a possibility that someone may reply and would want to meet and I was prepared for that. If I hadn’t heard from any of them that would have been fine too because I felt it was important for me just to provide some information about my partner. I had no expectations that I would receive a reply and fully understood that recipients could have a myriad of reasons to remain anonymous.

Through the Legacy of Life I received a letter from my partner's heart recipient several months later, telling me a little about herself and how much the gift of a better life meant to her. She lived with heart disease from both sides of her family and was the first person in her family to have heart surgery. She was a wife, mother, and grandmother and was grateful for her second chance at life. I was very happy for her and relieved that she was doing well.

It was almost a year before I replied, although I thought about my response almost every day. My internal conflict was that my partner and I were in a same sex relationship and if the recipient had an issue with our relationship that it could have caused distress for her, and I didn’t want that. I had to find a way to determine if the recipient would be okay with that without actually telling her outright. In my reply letter I provided several hypothetical situations and asked if any of them would make her uncomfortable or if there would be a reason for her to regret finding out more about my partner. I told her that there was no pressure whatsoever for her to decide any time soon whether or not she still wanted to meet and that I would be fine with whatever decision she made.

Her reply a short time later was that “Everyone has the same colour blood” and she “would never regret getting your partner’s heart as she saved my life”.  I was relieved that our relationship was obviously not an issue for her, and I continued with the process to meet. I would have chosen to not meet at all rather than upset her or cause her to regret her decision.  

In 2023 we were introduced to each other by the Legacy of Life Family Support Liaison in the program’s family room.  My first words to her were “I’m so happy for you” and hers to me were “I’m so sorry for your loss”. We spent the next two hours telling our stories and shedding a few tears. She brought her husband and sister with her, and they spoke about the impact that her organ donation has had on them. She showed me her tattoo that incorporated aspects of her organ donation with a tribute to my partner. I shared pictures of my partner and gave her a memorial book I had created, and an EKG printout taken of my partner when she was in ICU. We parted with smiles and hugs and shared contact information.

Since our initial contact we’ve seen each other on two other occasions and have texted occasionally. We live in different provinces so it’s not often that we are in the same area. Before we met, I wasn’t sure how much contact we would have afterwards, if any, and reserved my decision until we had met in person to see how things went. She’s a lovely person and I’m glad we’re staying in touch.

Meeting a recipient or donor/donor family is a difficult decision and is really about what you’re comfortable with. You have to consider the possibilities for your first contact; are you meeting in person, virtually, on the phone? Why do you want to meet; curiosity, to share information, to help you in your grieving process? Are you prepared for refusal by the recipient, further contact? Once you meet there’s no “going back” but you can decide where you go from there. You don’t have to give any personal information, or you can agree to stay in contact. It really will depend on how comfortable you feel with the situation and with the other person, and you can change your mind at any time. If you’re having difficulty in deciding whether or not to initiate contact or to receive contact talk to the Legacy of Life Family Support Liaison. In my situation I was surprised to learn that there was no precedence in Canada for a face-to-face meeting between donors and recipients, although guidelines are in place in various provinces. The Family Support Liaison reached beyond Canada’s borders to research and provide information for me to have an idea of what I could expect, and we had discussions about some of the possible outcomes.    

The Nova Scotia Legacy of Life guidelines for meeting in person included waiting for a year from the time of the surgery and writing anonymously to each other on four occasions. The anonymous written contact gives an opportunity to get to know each other a little and starts a relationship. For me, I needed the year to grieve and to try and adjust to my “new normal” and I wouldn’t have been ready to meet before then. It’s not so much that time heals but that you have more time to put the work into healing as time goes on.

Various staff at Legacy of Life have been wonderful. From my first meeting with them at the hospital ICU, to the meeting with the recipient, and all the contact with them in between, I have been treated with compassion, courtesy, and respect. They have truly made this experience much easier for me and have supported me throughout this process.  

If you decide to meet an organ recipient or donor/donor family I hope your experience will be as good as mine has been. Whether or not a meeting happens is not as important as the fact that you or your family member were a donor or recipient, and someone’s life was saved or quality of life improved.

Please consider becoming a donor, if you haven’t already. You can change a life and maybe even save one. 

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