Kassandra Howland didn’t give much thought to organ donation. Even when she and her sister got their driver’s license and registered to become organ donors, it seemed more like a gesture of goodwill than a reality they would ever be faced with. It wouldn’t be until Howland’s mother needed a double-long transplant that that reality became her world.
Howland’s mother was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2015. According to the Mayo Clinic, COPD is a “chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. Symptoms include breathing difficulty, cough, mucus (sputum) production and wheezing.”
“She was just having typical early stages of COPD [symptoms]. She just had trouble breathing and then she ended up on oxygen.”
By mid-2016 her mother’s doctors advised Howland’s mom that she visit a transplant clinic to see if she would be a suitable candidate for an organ transplant. In April 2017, Howland’s mother was already on a palliative care regimen when she would go to a transplant clinic and had a battery of tests done on her.
“They pretty much said you're healthy as a horse other than your lungs. I remember her coming home that day and she said, ‘they think I'd be a good candidate for the surgery.’,” Howland said. “I was terrified at the time [because] obviously we knew if she didn't get the surgery she would die within a couple of years.”
One year later, Howland’s mother would be placed on the lung transplant list and while she was designated as a ‘level one’ candidate meaning she was in declining health, but not in such a critical condition that she would need to be rushed to an operating room immediately, that is, until she was.
“She was still on oxygen and she couldn't walk up the stairs. I had my two little ones; my younger sister had two little ones as well. It was a depressing time because she couldn't do any activities with the kids.”
By November 2018 Howland’s mom was designated a level two.
“Those are the people who are declining more rapidly and we didn’t know: it could be a month; it could be a year.”
On February 23rd, 2019 her mom received a call at 8 P.M.
“The transplant clinic called her that night and she didn't answer because she didn't know who it was, so they called my dad he didn't answer and then they finally called my mom back and she answered and they said, ‘we think we have one for you.’”
Howland’s father rushed to pack and immediately drove his wife to Edmonton. The following day, early on the morning of February 4th, Howland’s mother would receive a double lung transplant.
“She got both. It was wild.”
As the hours ticked by and Howland along with her siblings and father awaited news of their mother’s surgery, her thoughts were racing.
“I'm probably the most emotional in the family. I was absolutely freaking out. I had convinced myself this could be the last time I see my mom,” she said. “Who knows what the surgery is going to be like? My younger sister and my older sister were like, ‘This is great, this is a miracle! She's going to do fine!’ But I think overall, we were pretty nervous.”
Howland says she is eternally grateful her mother received the lung transplant before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, observing that with her mother’s fragile lung condition, a virus like COVID-19 would have almost certainly been unbearable. Since her mother’s transplant, Howland doesn’t hide the fact that there have been health complications along the way, including hospitalizations, however, regardless her mother has stayed upbeat through it all.
“She's such a positive person and we are her biggest cheerleaders. We're just so thankful she's here. I mean If she wouldn't hadn't had that lung transplant, she wouldn't be here with us right now for sure.”
Since her mother’s surgery, Howland said she has grappled with issues of her own mortality.
“I don't want to think about when I die and what they're going to do with my organs, but then when you have someone, you love and that's the only way they can survive? If you're an organ donor, you can help you can literally help someone see or breathe again.”
Howland also underlined that while there is great joy in seeing her mother prevail, there is a psychological strain that envelops the whole family of transplant patients.
“If anybody is going through any type of organ transplant; it's emotionally and physically draining. I hope people understand that it's okay to ask for help. I mean my mom is in therapy, like, I've had to go to therapy with all of it. I just hope people know they’re not alone.”
According to the Canadian Institute for Health, in 2018, there were 361 lung transplants, with 270 as the total of patients on the waiting list. 28 patients died while on the waitlist. In total there were 2,849 organ transplants, which include kidney, liver, heart, lung, and pancreas.
When Howland was asked about Green Shirt Day she said it is undoubtedly a special day for her.
“You know, watching her [my mother] go through all that and just thinking of all the other organ donor recipients; they're the strongest people; they get a second chance at life,” she said. “And it's because of amazing people who decide to be organ donors.”
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