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The ultimate assist: one hockey parent donates liver to another

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Peter Brouwer and Vanessa Smith
Peter Brouwer and Vanessa Smith have more in common than parenting kids who play on the same team: Vanessa donated her liver to Peter when he needed a life-saving transplant. (Photo: Peter Brouwer)

Hockey parents inevitably share moments on and off the ice: passionate cheering for their children's teams, memories of key plays, a camaraderie built during hours spent watching practices and games.

But fellow hockey parents Peter Brouwer and Vanessa Smith share an extra special bond.

When Vanessa found out that Peter, whose 10-year-old son plays on the same hockey and lacrosse teams as her son, needed a live liver donor, she immediately completed her paperwork to be his donor.

"It was something I couldn't not do," she says. "For me, it was just a natural step."

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In January, she became Peter's liver donor.

Six months later, Peter is returning to how his life was before he got sick – something he says he owes fully to Vanessa's generous decision.

A well-kept secret

In 2009, Peter, a father of two, was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) – a liver disease that causes inflammation and scarring in the bile ducts, which can lead to liver damage and cirrhosis.

"It was a shock to be diagnosed with a disease where there was no known cure," Peter recalls. "The ultimate cure would be a liver transplant."

For different people, the disease progresses at different rates. Some PSC patients may not need a liver transplant for a few decades, while others might require one within a few years.

Peter and his wife, Melissa Brouwer, decided to continue to live their lives to the fullest and not let PSC get in the way for as long as possible. Apart from their immediate family, they didn't tell anyone about the diagnosis.

Peter Brouwer and son
Despite his illness, Peter continued to work and coach his children’s hockey and lacrosse teams as much as possible. In the summer of 2015, he helped coach the St. Catharines Athletics, pictured above with his son. (Photo: Peter Brouwer)

"I was always the type of person who says 'I'll overcome anything.' This was not going to stop me," Peter says.

"I didn't want people to treat me differently or feel sorry for me. I've lived a very fortunate life."

A turn for the worse

As time went on, Peter's condition deteriorated.

"Every year it got worse," Melissa says. "It started to get horrible and frightening to watch him decline."

Peter was experiencing symptoms such as itchiness, mental fogginess, fatigue and jaundice – his skin was turning yellow. He would develop internal infections, which became worse and worse each time.

In February 2015, he was admitted to the hospital for an infection, and he remembers the doctor saying to him: "Peter, your time is up. You need to get on the liver transplant list."

Realizing a living donor would be the best option for Peter, the Brouwer family went public with their story and plea for a live donor. Melissa took the lead on advocating for her husband. Peter calls her his "crutch" in their time of need. 

Peter Brouwer before surgery
In 2015, Peter's health had deteriorated and he found out he would be listed for transplant. (Photo: Peter Brouwer)

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"My goal was to ensure that he survives and that our family is intact," Melissa says. "I put in 150 per cent to ensure he survives."

Toronto General Hospital (TGH) has Canada's largest liver transplant program, and performs more than 150 transplants a year. About one third of those are from living donors, which ensures a better functioning liver for the recipient, a shorter wait time for an organ, and the benefit of a scheduled surgery.  

After one donor surgery was cancelled due to a potential risk to the donor, the Multi-Organ Transplant team at TGH team found another match from the applications submitted – Vanessa Smith, mother of six and fellow hockey parent to Melissa and Peter.

'You're going to save Mr. Brouwer's life'

Once she was accepted as a match, Vanessa talked to her kids – who range in age from three to 15 – to explain what she was about to do.

"My nine-year-old, who plays hockey with Peter's son, said to me, 'You're going to save Mr. Brouwer's life,'" she remembers. "I told him I was only providing one piece – it was the doctors who would save his life."

The transplant surgery date was set: January 11, 2016.

"It started to hit me when they wheeled me in," she says. "But the surgery went very well."

Vanessa was able to walk around the day after the donor surgery. Her first walk was straight to Peter's hospital room.

"That's when I got emotional," she says. She remembers him telling her his itch was gone – "You just realize how quickly it takes effect," she says.

Vanessa and Peter
Vanessa and Peter, pictured above with Peter's wife Melissa, were discharged just days after the donor and recipient surgeries at Toronto General Hospital. (Photo: Peter Brouwer)

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"I know it wasn't a minor surgery, but to me it felt like one because the team at Toronto General is absolutely unbelievable," Vanessa says. "They are so thorough and personable. I didn't have a single concern."

She was discharged within four days. Peter came home in six days after her – 10 days after his surgery.

The road to recovery

"Two weeks after the surgery, we were driving to my son's hockey game and I had a conversation with him," Peter recalls. "To this day I can remember exactly where on the highway we were and what we talked about.

"I had never had one like that before because I couldn't, because I was so irritated and tired all the time."

Peter's memory, clarity of thought and physical strength is returning to where it was before his diagnosis. He's able to spend time with his children without being exhausted.

"The biggest change has been his energy," Melissa says. Peter is back to coaching his children's sports teams and working full-time as an executive at an international automation company.

Peter Brouwer and kids
Three weeks after his transplant, Peter celebrated his birthday with his family, feeling stronger than he had in years. (Photo: Peter Brouwer)

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Now, he wants to share his story for others who need organ donations.

"There are a lot of people on the transplant list who need support and who need an organ. Not everyone can be a live donor, but anyone can sign their donor card," Peter says.

 "I'm most thankful for my donor who was unselfish and interrupted her life for me. It just shows you the power of humanity," Peter says.

He and Vanessa see each other weekly for lacrosse practice now that hockey season is over, and they will forever share a bond that goes beyond the ice or field – after all, she did provide him a life-saving assist.

"Don't recognize me," Peter says. "But recognize heroes such as Vanessa, who donated half her liver so I can live.

"I am just one recipient of a heroic action."

Register to be an organ and tissue donor online at ​www.beadonor.ca

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