A Cobourg woman’s desperate search for a live liver donor is highlighting the lack of available organs for transplant in Ontario.
Every day that goes by, Leanne Yagrines says her health deteriorates even more.
When she was first diagnosed with liver failure due to cirrhosis in September 2018, Yagrines felt she had no options.
“‘I’m dead’ — I just thought that was it,” she said.
Yagrines wasn’t eating at the time, weighed under 120 pounds and was sick with pneumonia.
“I kind of was just in this dream world. Really, I didn’t think I was going to live; I thought I was hanging on to say goodbye,” Yagrines explained.
The 45-year-old and her husband Rob have been married for 19 years and have two children, 20-year old Rory and 16-year-old Jade.
READ MORE: Here’s how organ donation works in Canada
In mid-June, Yagrines’ transplant team at Toronto General Hospital encouraged her to look for a live liver donor (she’s also on the transplant list for a deceased donor). Her family enlisted the help of a longtime friend, who started a Facebook group called Leanne Needs a Liver Donation and a webpage to help find her a live donor.
Since news broke in Cobourg, a small town of less than 20,000, more than 100 people have started the process to determine if they can be a live liver donor.
“Overwhelming,” Yagrines’ husband Rob said of the response. “I have had people I haven’t seen in a decade getting tested. It’s just amazing to see the outreach from the general public, and all those people, we don’t even have a clue who they are.”
Tricia Mumby, who is a digital marketer, started the pages. Mumby and Yagrines have been friends since the day they met in Grade 12 at East Northumberland Secondary School (ENSS) in Brighton.
“It’s been amazing. It’s definitely the most useful thing I’ve done on the internet. To be honest, I can’t believe how many of these people who are going forward to get tested that have no connection to Leanne,” Mumby said from her office in Hamilton.
Finding a live donor is no easy feat. The candidate must be in perfect health with a clean medical history, cannot be overweight and can only be between the ages of 16 and 60.
“We have a very extensive process that evaluates them, and only about one-third of the people that we formally assess ultimately come to surgery,” Dr. Mark Cattral, a transplant surgeon at Toronto General Hospital, explained.
“People are willing to step forward to be considered a living donor, but sometimes there’s some anatomical reasons that would preclude us from going ahead with the surgery, either because it increased the risk to the donor or to the recipient.”
According to Cattral, during a transplant, only a portion of the liver is taken from the donor. It has a regenerative capacity that allows it to grow to the size it needs to be in the recipient’s body. Within three months, the donor’s liver will also be back to its original size.
“Living donors are basically a response to the problem of the shortage of deceased donors,” Cattral added. “The liver is a vital organ and is absolutely essential for survival. You can’t live without a liver just like you can’t live without a heart — it’s absolutely important.”
According to the transplant team at Toronto General Hospital, about 25 to 30 per cent of patients listed for transplants die on the waiting list in a given year.
“The key advantage of a living donor transplant is that it almost eliminates that risk of wait list mortality, which is where most of our patients die,” Cattral said.
One way to help with that mortality rate is to register to be a donor online at www.BeADonor.ca. According to the Trillium Gift of Life Network, 34 per cent of Ontarians are registered donors, and there are more than 1,600 people on the organ transplant list.
According to Trillium Gift of Life, every three days someone dies while waiting for a transplant.
“The need for transplant continues to outweigh the number of organs available. There is still much work to do. As long as there are lives lost on the wait list because of lack of organs, we pledge to stay focused on ever greater improvement and innovation,” said Ronnie Gavsie, president and CEO of Trillium Gift of Life Network.
Leanne needs a Type O liver donor. Her story has been shared from coast to coast and even as far away as Dubai, reaching more than 133,000 people.
“I’m meeting such amazing people. It makes all the difference between when I’m having a bad day,” Yagrines said.
Now, she wants people who have heard her story to consider becoming a donor.
“If people just keep donating — say, ‘Take everything out of my body’ — we can save ourselves,” she said.
What if she doesn’t find a donor? The thought is always in the back of Yagrines’ mind.
She’s started making preparations for her husband and children, just in case. When talking about the possibility of never meeting grandchildren or seeing her children walk down the aisle, a lump forms in her throat.
“I want them to go and do. I want them to be happy and get through this life, regardless of the circumstances that are here now,” she said.
As Yagrines waits for a donor, she and her family hope that someone will answer her call in this time of need.