Skip to content

FOOTHILLS MAGAZINE: Receiving the gift of sight

“It’s the greatest gift that anyone could give, especially a stranger.”
FM-Lise McCarthy BWC 7803A
Corneal transplant recipient Lise McCarthy poses along Crystal Ridge on March 25. Having suffered from cataracts that affected her earlier in life, McCarthy benefited from the transplants that restored her vision.

MOST PEOPLE don’t often consider how their lives would change if they suddenly were faced with the prospect of failing organs. For a large percentage of the population, having functioning

kidneys, liver, lungs and other organs is considered to be somewhat of a guarantee.

However, in 2020, there were 2,594 instances where that was not the case in Canada.

The total number of solid transplants performed that year was down 21 per cent from the previous year — likely due to the pandemic.

But transplants as a whole have increased a total of 22 per cent since 2011.

As more people become educated and aware of the possibilities brought about by organ donation, numbers of registered donors will continue to increase.

And so, we have a rather non-traditional volunteer activity, but an impactful and selflessness one, nonetheless.

Lise’s story

In June of 2011, Okotokian Lise McCarthy had her first corneal transplant.

After suffering from cold sores on her left cornea, she was left with considerable scar tissue.

She was nearly completely blind in that eye as a result.

McCarthy joined the donation waitlist on the advice of her ophthalmologist, with hopes she would be lucky enough to render the aid of a stranger in the restoration of her vision.

After more than two years on the list, she was finally able to receive the transplant.

She said the procedure is quite painful and a request was made on her part to be put under general anaesthesia, to which her surgeon agreed.

McCarthy explained that a laser goes over a patient’s eye and slices a thin layer of the damaged cornea off, before inserting the donor cornea and stitching it up.

It’s also not typical for patients to be put under for the procedure, but she requests to be put under general anesthesia for her own comfort.

After that, she is on strict light duties for six weeks. At around four weeks post-op, she is allowed to go for walks.

“They don’t want you to pop any stitches,” McCarthy said.

Despite following doctor’s orders, she did end up popping two stitches, which are ultimately removed during a procedure four months after the initial operation.

When her healing was nearly complete, McCarthy couldn’t believe the improvement.

“Once I had the transplant, it was amazing,” she recalled. “I remember walking one day and looking at a tree and I could see the veins in the leaves.”

She added that when she began driving again, she would often repeatedly look over her left shoulder, thinking that she was seeing things. It turns out she just wasn’t used to having a full range of vision.

Without the selflessness of an individual who registered to be a tissue donor prior to their passing, McCarthy would have continued to be rendered blind on her left side.

“I was fortunate enough to have someone’s loved one donate that for me,” she said, noting that she never learned about the donor or their family.

“It’s the greatest gift that anyone could give, especially a stranger.”

10 years later

More than a decade after her first transplant, McCarthy is likely to go under the laser for a second time.

“It’s been recommended from my ophthalmologist to have another [transplant],” she said.

She explained that since her 2011 operation, she has developed astigmatism due to the placement of stitches in her eye. She has also undergone cataract surgery.

The typical life span for a corneal transplant is about five years, so McCarthy has fared quite well in terms of longevity.

But she is beginning to lose vision again.

“Unfortunately, it’s starting to die off now, so I’m back to almost being blind in my left eye and I can stay like that or have another transplant,” she said.

It is unclear exactly when that will happen, as she has to go back on the waitlist. Her last wait was about two years.

In the family

Even before McCarthy began her own transplant journey, she had deep roots in organ and tissue donation advocacy.

Her daughter was born with cystic fibrosis (CF), a common fatal genetic disease that affects the digestive system and the lungs.

“She has always been told she’ll need a lung transplant to survive,” McCarthy said of her daughter, now 33.

When her child was born, the average age for someone with CF was 21 years old.

Thankfully, a lung transplant hasn’t been necessary just yet, after she was approved for a drug called Trikafta.

Although the medicine is not yet available in Canada, her daughter was granted approval by compassionate use through the Special Access Programme, which allows practitioners to request drugs unavailable for sale in Canada.

Her quality of life has since increased, and she’s been scratched off the waitlist for the time being.

“But she potentially will need one, it’s just not as for certain anymore,” McCarthy said. “As long as her lungs don’t get
any worse.”

Since her daughter began the drug in October 2020, supplemental oxygen is no longer required day to day.

Before beginning the drug, McCarthy said her daughter would require hospitalization three to six times a year, where she would stay for about two weeks.

She said she hasn’t been hospitalized since starting Trikafta.

McCarthy said her daughter’s lung function has also gone up from a range of 22-28 per cent to 38 per cent.

“I mean, it’s not great but it’s still way better than it was and she’s not on oxygen anymore,” she said.

A transplant may still be required in the future, but for now, the McCarthy’s are hoping that Trikafta holds up.

“We’re hoping she won’t need a lung transplant, but they don’t know how long the meds will keep working for her,” McCarthy said.

The impact

According to Canadian Blood Services, a single deceased tissue donor can help to save or improve the lives of up to 75 patients.

The number of Canadians who will need a cornea transplant is expected to increase in the coming years as the aging population goes up.

Although thousands of people make donations every year, there is not enough to meet the demand.

There are approximately 4,400 Canadians awaiting a lifesaving organ or tissue transplant. Unfortunately, not everyone in need receives one.

Tissue donation, organ donation and plasma and blood donation are the ultimate act of stepping up to serve others.

For more information about how to register to become a donor, visit blood.ca.

There are various opportunities to donate blood at upcoming donor events in Okotoks.

On April 26, May 30 and June 28, a donor clinic will be set up in Woods Hall at the Foothills Centennial Centre from 3-8 p.m.

April is for volunteers and organ donation

There are two initiatives this month that happen to have a connection.

April 24-30 is National Volunteer Week, a time to recognize the power of volunteerism throughout communities and across the country and April 7 is Green Shirt Day.

A week recognizing volunteers has been observed annually since 1974 while Green Shirt Day has been around since 2018.

Logan Boulet, 21, was one of 16 people killed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash on April 6, 2018.

Boulet had registered to be a donor after being inspired by a coach and mentor, Ric Suggitt, who saved six lives through donation following his passing in 2017.

The athlete’s parents ultimately decided to honour their son’s wishes, which saved six lives.

Following the news of Boulet’s donation, it is estimated that nearly 150,000 people across the country registered to become organ donors.

Green Shirt Day was created to honour the victims of the tragedy and their families and to continue Boulet’s advocacy for organ donation. Green is the official colour of tissue and organ donation, symbolizing the hope given to recipients by donors.

To learn more about the organ donation initiative, visit greenshirtday.ca.

When we think of a volunteer, those that come to mind are often individuals that dedicate their time, resources, knowledge or skill to the benefit of others without the expectation of reward.

An individual who makes a plan to help someone else with the donation of their organs or tissues following their passing meets those criteria in an unexpected way — a completely selfless action which greatly impacts the recipient, with no reward.

“It really is a blessing,” McCarthy said of her donation.