Brampton, Ont. woman searching for the recipient of her son's heart

A Brampton woman is on a mission to find the man who received the gift of her son's heart earlier this year. Keerin Reid died in September 2017. Through a series of letters, she learned the recipient of heart is a 54-year-old father of two. But she wants to know more.

Ontario law mandates that organ donations must be strictly confidential

Sharon Vandrish is in search of the man who now has the heart of her late son, Keerin Reid, who died in 2017. (Yanjun Li/CBC)

A Brampton woman is on a mission to find the man who received the gift of her son's heart earlier this year.

Sharon Vandrish's journey began back in September 2017, when doctors told her that they were going to unplug her son, Keerin Reid, from life support. He was 23 years old.

Keerin had been in hospital for three days after suffering from an accidental fentanyl overdose before doctors declared him brain dead. 

His mother said she immediately wanted to "find something positive out of the tragedy."

"At least we could save the lives of others through his passing," she said in an interview.

"That gave me some level of comfort."

Vandrish donated her son's organs — including his heart — to four people through the Trillium Gift of Life Network (TGLN).

The network, which is the provincial body responsible for organ donation in Ontario, facilitates communication between recipients and a donor's family six months after the operation takes place.

Sharon Vandrish describes her late son as 'very supportive' and 'loyal.' (Submitted)

Vandrish took the first step.

"I remember saying that if the size of my son's heart was measured by how much he loved me, then it wouldn't fit in the recipient," she said.

She and the recipient of her son's heart struck up a correspondence.

"I just wanted to get him to know Keerin, to make it more humane than just an organ. He was a person."

Through their letters, Vandrish learned that the recipient was a 54-year-old father of a boy and a girl. She also found out that shortly after the transplant, he picked up hobbies that were dear to her late son.

Keerin was an avid gardener, which she explained in one of her letters. The recipient broke down in his reply, confessing that he had recently taken it up. 

"Its a roller-coaster of emotion because you want to know that person is OK ... and you want to know that your son's memory lives on," she said. 

Confidentiality laws

After exchanging three powerful letters, Vandrish wants to meet the man himself.

"It just seems like a natural progression to me," she said. "I just think it would close the loop on this whole process."

But according to Ontario law, organ donations must be kept strictly confidential. Even the letters exchanged between the pair pass through the foundation to be vetted first to ensure they do not breach the rules.

"Personal information is protected to safeguard both the donors' families and recipients, ensuring that neither is subject to an undesired relationship," TGLN said in an email. 

"Organ and tissue donation is an emotional process, and the feelings of both donor families and recipients are difficult to predict or assume."
Sharon Vandrish carries a charm with her late son's thumbprint and his initials on her bracelet. (Yanjun Li/CBC)

Vandrish doesn't agree.

"If we've both said yes, I don't understand why you'd want to prevent that," she said. She has reached out to the foundation directly, but they advised her to lobby her MPP.

"I don't know how to lobby my legislature, nor do I imagine they'd care about my little situation," she said. "It's probably a drop in the bucket compared to bigger issues."

She took to Reddit instead.

Vandrish's appeal comes just months after a Newfoundland woman, Jodi Loder, was able to feel her brother's heartbeat after a similar search.

Loder's brother died in 2016 in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. The recipient, Robert Buttle, lived over a thousand kilometres away in Battersea, Ont. But after two years — thanks to social media, a CBC interview and sheer determination — Loder was able to connect with him. 

"It was amazing, just to put my head on Rob's chest and listen to it the same way I listened to Jeff's. It was beating the exact same beat," she said of the experience. 

"It felt like home."

This is the same type of heartfelt connection that Vandrish is looking for. 

Her message to the stranger out there with her son's heart?

"No pressure but if this is something that interests you. I'm sure there are many ways that you can get ahold of me. I would welcome the opportunity."