Montreal·First Person

My journey to give a stranger more time through living organ donation

I thought of my father, who died of cancer when I was a child, and how all he hoped for was a little more time. I was serious about being an organ donor after death — so why wouldn't I be serious about it now, at age 24? 

After a long, pandemic-interrupted process, I found out I was ineligible. But I hope my story inspires others

Silken and her father when she was a child. Losing her father early, and learning about the impact a living donor can make on a life, pushed her to try to become a donor. (Submitted by Silken Chan)

I had never met anyone in need of a major organ transplant, until I met John in 2017.

At the time, I was working for a non-profit organization called Hope Air, which provides free flights to Canadians travelling to access specialist medical care outside of their home communities. John, a cancer patient who was awaiting a liver transplant, was a client. He already had to relinquish a liver that became available from a deceased donor in Toronto, because he could not reach the transplant centre in time.

I remember clearly the day when his second chance arrived. He phoned us, already on the way to the airport. My colleague and I had his flight booked by the time he arrived at the check-in desk.

He made it to Toronto before his new liver was even ready, and the generosity of that deceased donor extended his life.

Like many people, I had filled out the organ donor consent card that came with my driver's license, hopeful that donation would someday be my legacy. Then, early in 2019, I had a conversation with a friend, a recent medical school graduate, during which I mentioned this experience. What I heard from my friend surprised me: many people who register to donate organs after they die do not end up dying in a way that facilitates major organ donation.

I also learned that many recipients of transplanted organs, even when successful, will require another organ transplant down the road. This information changed my life. I was serious about being an organ donor after death — so why wasn't I serious about it now, at age 24? 

That was the start of a long, bumpy and pandemic-interrupted ride of undergoing testing at Toronto's University Health Network living donor program, to give a kidney anonymously to a stranger. 

By the time I got the call from the donor team, two months after submitting my application, I had moved from Toronto to Montreal. I told them I was still willing to do whatever was needed. I was curious to know if there was a "match" somewhere out there — but I soon learned that for someone who is willing to donate to whomever is most in need, there is no shortage of potential recipients. 

I learned that I might even have the opportunity to initiate a "donation chain," in which I could donate my kidney to someone for whom a prospective donor (such as their spouse or friend) had already been ruled out as a match, and then that incompatible donor would then become a donor for someone else.

Determining if Silken was eligible was a months-long process of tests, in the middle of a pandemic. (Submitted by Silken Chan)

For more than a year, I underwent a litany of blood and urine tests, bodily scans and interviews with the donor team. Before the pandemic, I was returning to Toronto every other week for appointments. I was in a graduate program then; I remember going to the airport from my Tuesday afternoon class, and arriving back at school for class Thursday morning.

Throughout the process, I often joked that donating a kidney to a stranger was like being a contestant on The Bachelor: people always want to know that you're "doing it for the right reasons." My reasons were not so different from the reasons people have for working out at the gym, or eating a healthy diet: I wanted my body to be of use to me, in helping me achieve what I wanted to do with my life — to live with both hands open.

And, though I had no illusions about single-handedly saving anyone's life, I hoped to be able to give someone the gift of more time. I thought of my father, who died of cancer when I was a child, and how all he hoped for was a little more time.

I was disheartened when my appointments were put on pause in March due to the pandemic, the weekend after I had just undergone a donor education session, CT scan and chest X-ray. I occupied myself by conducting as much research as possible about the donor process and outcomes. Over and over, across testimonials, news articles and scientific studies, I saw the same refrain from successful donors: "I'm healthy, willing and able – why wouldn't I do this?"

Silken had already moved to Montreal when she got the call from Toronto's University Health Network living donor program. So she would fly between the two cities to continue the process. (Submitted by Silken Chan)

Their conviction gave me the courage to defend my decision to friends and family members. Some were understanding, some apprehensive and all were concerned for my well-being. As time went on, I began to acclimate myself to the idea that I might really become a donor. I felt I had reached a turning point with my family when, out of the blue, my mother emailed me information about provincial medical leave policies for donors. 

I had friends who came to my appointments, and let me hold their hands anxiously before examinations. Other friends declared that when the time came, they would throw me a "kidney goodbye party".

I was excited when my appointments finally resumed in September, albeit virtually. Then, at the end of December, I learned that I had a significant health risk preventing me from being able to donate, and I was disqualified as a donor candidate. It was difficult news to receive. Yet I cannot regret having tried — and I appreciate what this experience has taught me about my capacity for kindness, faith, tenacity and living out the values I believe in.

Saving a life is the work of many. I had the courage to do this because I read so many stories of those who came before me. I hope to leave the door open for whoever may come next.


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About the Author

Silken Chan is an emergency department social worker. She lives in Montreal.

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