A dark scar travels down Stephanie Dyriw’s torso, from her rib cage to just above her navel. It’s a straight line, thinner than her pinky finger, like ink dripping down her body.
Her four-year-old son, JP, has a scar of his own.
Last November, the Toronto mom faced every parent’s worst nightmare. JP suddenly fell ill with a mysterious virus which attacked his liver. He’d need a transplant to save his life, doctors said.
With lengthy wait lists for a donation from a deceased donor, Dyriw had to donate a part of her own liver to save her son. Within a week, she was in a hospital bed, preparing for the transplant.
“I felt like I brought in a healthy baby, and then all of a sudden, he was fighting for his life,” the 38-year-old said.
Almost a year after the successful procedure, mom and son proudly display their scars as part of a national campaign to spread awareness of live organ donation by the University Health Network (UHN) and its partners. Dyriw was among 595 individuals who made a living donation of either a kidney or part of a liver in Canada last year, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
For more than 3,000 patients in Canada who continue to await a matching donor, the lesser-known living-donation option offer a faster and healthier track to recovery, the network says.
In Dyriw’s case, she felt better three months after surgery.
“It’s almost shocking to me how quickly my body recovered,” she told the Star on Wednesday, noting her son has a new lease on life. “He started junior kindergarten today … and he’s a regular boy again.”
The difference in wait times between living and deceased donors is significant — patients waiting for a kidney transplant face between five to 10 years before a matching donations from a deceased donor, said Dr. Atul Humar, director of the Ajmera Transplant Centre at UHN. For liver transplant, the odds are even worse: up to 25 per cent of patients, young and old, die waiting.
But there is no wait list if a live donor can be found. Once the donor is has gone through the necessary tests and procedures to confirm they’re a good match, the transplant can occur within the same month, Humar said.
While people may donate a variety of organs after they die, individuals can mostly only donate a kidney or up to two-thirds of their liver while they’re still alive. (In some rare cases, living lung donations are also possible.) That’s because people only need one of their two kidneys to live, and a liver grows back.
“What’s left over of their liver grows back to normal size over a period of about three to six months, and then in the recipient, the same thing happens,” said Humar.
Usually, it’s a family or friend donating for a loved one, but the hospital network also has an anonymous donation program for those who wish to donate an organ to anyone who needs it.
“We’ve done more anonymous living-donor liver transplants than anywhere in the world,” said Humar, noting the hospital did its hundredth transplant at the end of 2021.
One of the challenges about live donation are misconceptions about how it impacts the health of the donor. That’s what Jennen Johnson faced in 2017 when she embarked on a search for a donor after learning she was facing kidney failure and had four years to live. It was tough, she said.
“You’re going to have to bring this subject up to your friends and your family and essentially say, ‘Are you willing to donate a kidney to help save my life?’ That’s not always an easy conversation to have,” said the 47-year-old.
Though her immediate family was ready to help, they weren’t eligible. So she turned to social media. It worked.
In March 2018, Johnson got her transplant from the friend of a cousin. Since then, she helped start a UHN committee focused on spreading awareness and dispelling myths about organ donation among African, Caribbean and Black communities, where she said she faced many questions and misconceptions about organ donation.
People express concern that organ donation exposes healthy people to a serious operation, which can cause problems in their relationships if their loved ones don’t want them to donate, said Dr. Susan Abbey, program medical lead for UHN Mental Health. Her team meets with would-be donors to walk them through the decision and assesses their risk, including for potential mental-health problems.
“We’re not actually going to do this surgery unless we think we’re going to get a really good outcome for everybody,” Abbey said. “There’s a very small number of people who may have some medical complications.”
But Abbey said the “vast majority” of donors are back to work within six weeks of surgery, or 12 weeks for more physically demanding jobs.
In some cases, donors can feel better mentally than they did before the transplant.
“They don’t have any lasting symptoms,” Abbey said, noting studies have shown donor mental health tends to be better than that of others in the community. “They feel pleased with having made the donation.”
The scars are a physical reminder of the surgery. But that, too, has been a source of pride for donors and recipients alike, and a focal point of the campaign.
“This is like a warrior scar,” said Johnson. “I’ve been through a lot, and I’m proud to show my scars.”
Maria Iqbal is a 905 Region-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Maria via email: firstname.lastname@example.org