Nova Scotia organ donor families and recipients applaud new ‘presumed consent’ law

Click to play video 'Nova Scotia becomes first province to have presumed consent organ donation' Nova Scotia becomes first province to have presumed consent organ donation
On Monday, Nova Scotia became the first jurisdiction in North America to implement a policy of presumed consent for organ donation. Alicia Draus has more – Jan 18, 2021

As of Monday, all Nova Scotians above the age of 19 are presumed to have consented to donate their organs, unless they choose to opt out.

The change in law is aimed at increasing the number of donors. There are currently between 150 and 200 people waiting for an organ transplant in the province, but there are only about 20 donors each year.

Read more: As N.S. begins ‘presumed consent’ organ donation, advocates say Canada will be watching

“If you think about it, you’re tacitly sitting there waiting for someone to die and that’s a hard thing to deal with, to process when you’re going through this,” said David Phillips who was diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in 2016.

“But at the same time, so many people are dying and not making these donations and there are lives to be saved.”

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After Phillips was diagnosed, his condition quickly worsened, and in 2019 his liver failed completely.

“I was in the hospital for three months and my doctor told me I had a one per cent chance of survival even if I found a liver.”

That was in July, and his family was preparing their final goodbyes. At that same time, in New Brunswick, a young man just shy of his 26th birthday was in an ATV accident.

He was taken to hospital but pronounced brain dead. His name was Frank Levesque, and his family was asked if they wanted to donate his organs.

Frank Levesque was an avid hockey player and supportive father. Kelsey Martin Levesque

“We said yes, because he was a healthy kid, in very good shape,” said Frank’s father Daniel Levesque.

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“He would have been proud if he could help save some lives.”

In the end, he saved four lives — with his heart, two kidneys and liver all being donated.

That liver ended up in Phillips.

“Because it was his liver I received I pulled through, the new liver kicked in right away and my recovery was very quick,” said Phillips.

“Now I’m in perfect health.”

Phillips says he’ll forever be grateful for the liver, which has given him a new lease on life.

“Every day I wake up is found time, and so I’m brimming over with gratitude in a way I have never felt in my life.”

The two families have been able to connect, and are planning to meet when the pandemic is over, but even that wasn’t easy.

While both families wrote to each other through the support liaison, contact information is not shared, however they got lucky and ended up connecting over social media.

“They were incredibly broken up about the loss of their loved one and having trouble healing, they were very clear to me that me reaching out and having a conversation with them is going to help them in their healing. So I feel very strongly that recipients of donation need to reach out, need to express their gratitude.”

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And that’s something else that the new law aims to achieve — making it easier for donor families and recipients to meet should they both choose to do so.

Click to play video 'N.B. woman pushing for presumed consent law for organ donation' N.B. woman pushing for presumed consent law for organ donation
N.B. woman pushing for presumed consent law for organ donation – Jul 10, 2020

For the Levesque family, getting to see the lives saved is something that helps them appreciate how their loved one is able to live on. They’re still hoping to connect with the three other recipients, with the two kidneys believed to be in Nova Scotia as well, and the heart donated to someone in Ontario.

“It helps give us relief,” said Levesque.

“It’s hard to do describe, but it’s what’s remaining of the person we loved.”

It’s a sentiment that Phillips understands and he says he’s looking forward to officially meeting the family once the pandemic is over.

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“Frank was a young man with a new wife, a new baby and a baby on the way, and I want to make sure that he lives on in a meaningful way in me.”

Both men say they fully support the new organ donation law and say it will make a difference in hundreds of people’s lives, and not just for those on the brink of death, like Phillips, but for anyone on a wait-list.

Currently, the average wait for a kidney is two and a half to three years, while the wait for a liver or heart averages six months to a year.

With the new law now in effect, it’s expected that in five years, about 30 to 50 per cent of deaths will result in organ donations.