Katie and her mother
"Katie was about empathy and giving, and we wanted to honour that," says her mother, Debra Edwards. (Photo: Courtesy Debra Edwards)

A few episodes of shortness of breath were the only signs something was wrong. Katie McLeod was rushed to hospital, but nothing could be done.

At 27 years of age, and with no history of any medical condition, Katie had suffered a pulmonary embolism – a clot in her lungs. She was in a coma. Soon, doctors would tell the family that she had passed away, as her brain had been deprived of blood for too long.

"It was the most terrible pain, to realize she was so young and that her hopes and dreams had died with her," says Debra Edwards, Katie's mother.

"It was so sudden. She could have been anyone's daughter."

Going through this tragic loss, Katie's family found some consolation in being able to abide by her wishes and allow her to be an organ donor. Katie saved at least three other lives after her passing.

"Katie was all about empathy and giving, and we wanted to honour that," says Debra.

'The need is so great'

Katie's family decided to share their story during "Be a Donor Month," celebrated in April, and National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week (NOTDAW), which is April 18 to 24. She reminds everyone of discussing your wishes with family and loved ones, to promote the unique life-saving impact of organ donation.

Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Debra says she and her family are very grateful to the healthcare teams who made donation possible for her daughter – at the donor hospital, Scarborough Health Network, Trillium Gift of Life (TGLN), the organization in charge of organ and tissue donation in Ontario, and at UHN, where some of the organ recipients were.

"It's inspiring to see all the work behind the scenes to keep transplants going through such difficult times," says Debra. "The need is so great."

With COVID, extra precautions were taken to make sure organ donation is safe, such as increased testing. Other ongoing challenges include limited intensive care and operating room capacity.

"Transplant is essential, it serves people that would die without these surgeries, and that is why we work so hard to make sure we can save these lives even through a pandemic," says Brittany Gravesade, TGLN's Organ and Tissue Donation Coordinator located at Toronto General Hospital.

Atul and Deepali
"Every organ we decline is a life that is lost, so we must do everything in our power to facilitate transplantation safely, even during a global pandemic," says Dr. Atul Humar, (L), along with Dr. Deepali Kumar. The pair have been recognized for their extraordinary work during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: UHN)

Throughout this pandemic, experts across the province and across the country have been working closely to exchange the latest in scientific data to ensure transplant can continue to save lives.

UHN's Ajmera Transplant Centre was recognized for its leadership during these trying times. Drs. Atul Humar, Director of the Centre, and Deepali Kumar, Director of Transplant Infectious Diseases at the Centre, have recently received the Transplantation Champion Awards from TGLN, for their exceptional work and dedication during the last year.

"We have relied on your expertise through the years, and increasingly during COVID. We called you for guidance on average 40 times a month," Clare Payne, Vice-President, Clinical Transplant Systems at TGLN, said during last month's virtual ceremony to present the awards.

"Each of you are on-call 26 weeks of the year, and since you are in the same household, that means you've been answering us non-stop during this year," she said, noting Drs. Humar and Kumar are married, cherishing them as the "transplant power couple."

Both Drs. Humar and Kumar are transplant infectious disease experts, and have been leading voices during the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring transplant could proceed safely and, most recently, also advocating for transplant recipients to be given priority during the vaccination rollout.

Leaders in Canada and internationally

"Every organ we decline is a life that is lost, so we must do everything in our power to facilitate transplantation safely, even during a global pandemic," says Dr. Humar.

"It's such an honour to be recognized by our peers, and this award is truly a reflection of the incredible team effort to keep transplant running in Ontario and in Canada," says Dr. Kumar.

Leaders in Canada and internationally, Drs. Humar and Kumar have been consulted hundreds of times this year to weigh in on how to transport organs safely, how to safely assess COVID transmission risk – if any – testing and isolation requirements, sharing research and data, among many other requests.

"You've been representing us nationally and internationally, in calls and virtual meetings, coordinating information coming in and sharing our experience with other jurisdictions," Darin Treleaven, Chief Medical Officer, Transplant, at TGLN, said during the virtual ceremony.

"From my perspective as a colleague, it is a huge pleasure to interact with you, and from a patient standpoint, Ontario should be proud to rely on experts like you whose guidance directly translated into lives saved during the COVID pandemic."

To learn more about organ donation and to register to be a donor, please visit BeaDonor.ca.

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