If not for the miracle of a heart being available at the right time, Dave Mitchell's 41st birthday would have been his last.
Mitchell wears a green ribbon to commemorate that miracle and also to remind everyone that, though it's really simple to be an organ donor, the gift can make a profound life-or-death difference.
April is Organ Donor Awareness Month, so he will be sharing his story as much as he can to promote the cause.
Everyone is aware that the donations of organs does save lives – potentially up to eight, he said. Tissue donations (like skin) can potentially improve the lives of 75 people.
Bone donations are also life-changing, he cited, giving the example of a coworker who lost her mother. Her eyes were donated to someone who can now enjoy the wonders of sight, but the donation of a bone from her forearm also made a difference for a cancer patient.
Mitchell will forever think of 2015 as the year of the heart transplant that meant that his wife Stephanie and their five children (aged 12 to 26) are still a family.
He was a volunteer firefighter with the Cobourg force at that time, little foreseeing that his colleagues would be first responders that January when he had a heart attack at home on Jan. 3.
“When they arrived, I was without vital signs. They had to use the defibrillator,” he recalled.
He was taken to Northumberland Hills Hospital and, from there, to St, Michael's where he remained for more than a month.
“They were trying to treat it as an electrical issue with medication. I went home in early February with an internal defibrillator – which they had to postpone until I was well enough to have that done.”
Before the month was out, it went off. He was going to bed one night when it shocked him and continued to shock him for a total of 14 times, before he got to Campbellford Memorial Hospital and they got it stopped. Fortunately a nurse on duty, who had worked in Toronto and knew about this kind of thing, used a magnet to put a stop to the problem, Then, when he was stable enough, he was transported by Ornge (the Ontario air-ambulance service) to St. Mike's again – on Feb. 13, his 41st birthday. The following day, he was transported to Toronto General for a Positron Emission Tomography imaging of his heart, but he crashed before they could perform it.
“They put me into an induced coma on two forms of life support. On Feb. 22, they decided I needed a transplant. On the 23rd, I was stabilized enough to get on the transplant list. On the 24th, I had my transplant,” he said.
“My old heart failed so quickly, my only option was a transplant. When I was able to get on the list, I went straight to the top, based on my condition, my age and my health. Prior to all this. I had no health issues, no heart-related issues – I was on the list less than 23 hours.”
The average wait time for a heart is two years. Often, those waiting for one have chronic conditions they can manage while they wait, but that wasn't Mitchell's case.
“Because my heart failed so quickly and I was in hospital on life support and I was in a coma for 10 days, when I woke up I had a new heart.
“It was really kind of a miracle. From the very beginning, I was fortunate that when I had the heart attack, my spouse was there with me at home and I could tell her, 'Call 911' before I sat down. She did CPR until the fire department arrived. The fire department revived me, and the paramedics arrived and rushed me to the Cobourg hospital. They stabilized me and got me immediately to St. Mike's. I believe it was all about being in the right place at the right time.
“The transplant at Toronto General – I was there and had all the best care from all the resources.
“After the fact, the surgeon informed my family if I didn't receive that transplant, they would have given me 72 hours.”
In hindsight, what might have been a warning took place Dec. 29, 2014, when he went to the NHH emergency department just because he felt something funny.
“I was thinking pneumonia. It felt very vague. The EKG (electrocardiogram) revealed I had already had a heart attack at some point.”
He would spend the night in the hospital, with much attention and blood work – and an angiogram the following morning. It was clear.
“I was sent home, given medication, told to follow up with the cardiologist in the new year.”
He would have, he said. He never got the chance, because of the heart attack just days later.
“The pathology on my heart came back as an extremely rare auto-immune disease. We have researched it after the fact – giant cell myocarditis. Giant cell typically results in sudden death. What causes it and how to prevent it are unknown. It's rare to diagnose it ahead of a heart attack. “But that's another piece of luck. Because I survived a heart attack, they immediately started treating me with prednisone, a steroid – and one of the only treatments for giant cell is prednisone, so you can prolong your life until you get a transplant.”
A diagnosis of giant cell myocarditis automatically calls for being placed on the heart-transplant list, as there is no cure. But the good new is that it has no biological implications – no chance of it being hereditary.
The transplant is a gift of life, he said, but it does require maintenance beyond the medication. The health ordeal affected his liver and kidneys. Because of a 25% chance of a giant-cell recurrence, he is still on prednisone. He is in Toronto every three months for an echocardiogram, he sees a cardiologist every six months and he has blood work every month, not to mention seeing a Peterborough nephrologist to keep an eye on his kidneys.
But compared to 2015, he said, it's a picnic.
The prolonged hospitalization for his transplant caused terrible atrophy and loss of function. He was undergoing rehab in April, when he contracted pneumonia and sepsis and was rehospitalized at Toronto General. He was in a coma another six days.
He didn't really get to come home until Canada Day weekend that year. Of the first six month of 2015, he was not out of hospital for more than a couple of weeks. And during that time, he could count on his wife, his sister (Jennifer Arsenault) or his parents (Steve and Stephanie Mitchell) being at his bedside virtually every day.
Part of his luck was having that heart available, thanks to someone who had thought to become a donor.
“You have to think to do this, and telling your family is just as important as to register as a donor,” Mitchell stressed. “Because of our laws in Ontario the way they are, your family members can override your wish to be a donor. Even if you've checked that box, the family has the last say.
“In that time of grief, they may say, 'No, I don't want to be bothered with it' – because it's quite a process.”
What he hopes his story will accomplish is the awareness that saving lives or even just making a life-altering difference is as simple as visiting beadonor.ca. Have your health card handy, he said, and it takes less than two minutes. It will even tell you if you are already registered.
“It's such an easy thing to do,” he said.
And if you just want information, visit giftoflife.on.ca. It's the Trillium website, representing the agency that oversees organ donation in Ontario. It's a great resource website with all the information you could want – including statistics for this area.
While the Trillium organization is aiming to have 58% of Ontario health-card holders registered as donors, that rate is 48% in both Cobourg and Port Hope. Mitchell is hoping to see that reach at least 50% soon.
Since 2015, Mitchell has supported the cause at high-profile events and smaller ones. This year, he will be at a special flag-raising April 1, and will make an appearance at the March meeting of Northumberland County council (with green ribbons for the councillors).