The Current

Why a transplant recipient says writing a donor family can feel impossible

For 11 years, Joan Wynden has anxiously been waiting to hear from one of the five recipients who received her late brother's organs. The silence feels like a second loss, she says. Sherry Robinson, a liver recipient, explains why she can't write a letter to the donor family.

'There's a huge degree of gratitude. But it's a difficult thing to express'

Joan Wynden has waited 11 years to hear from a recipient of her brother's organs. The silence feels like a second loss. But for liver recipient Sherry Robinson writing a letter to the donor family feels impossible. (Shutterstock)

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After Joan Wynden's youngest brother died, five of his organs were successfully transplanted.

To Wynden that meant five chances that a recipient would contact her anonymously, which a counsellor told her would likely happen.

But 11 years after Paul's death, Wynden and her family have heard nothing. And the silence has been a difficult reality to live with.

"In the abstract, we've done something good but in my heart, I feel a second layer of loss," she told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

If she had to make the decision again, she is not sure she would donate a loved one's organs, she said.

"It just really is an echo of the original loss. I would hope that we'd be able to do it again. But I'm not sure."

Wynden, who lives in Courtenay, B.C., wrote to The Current after hearing the story of a Newfoundland mother who met the man who received her son's heart.

Pat Loder and her daughter Jodi are thrilled to receive a letter that ultimately leads them to the man who has their loved one's heart. (John Gaudi/CBC)

Wynden yearns to hear that personal story, too — one she believes will make her feel complete in her grief.

"It's just gone into the void and there isn't anyone out there who is willing to reach back and say, 'Thank you. This has meaning."

Why recipients may not reach out

Sherry Robinson, who received a liver transplant in 1998, says she has struggled with the thought of connecting with her donor's family, partly because it would force her to relive a time during which she was ill.

"You think in your mind that you'll be cured when you have a new liver, when you have a new heart, but the healing process takes so long and is so difficult."

"I had this new organ within me and I needed to make it my own. I needed to re-establish control of my own body. And there was a lot of denial that went into the fact that I was carrying someone else's organ within me," she said.

The Kitchener, Ont., woman was moved to reach out The Current after hearing about the Newfoundland mother's meeting.

There's a huge degree of gratitude. But it's a difficult thing to express.- Transplant recipient Sherry Robinson told Joan Wynden on not writing a letter to the donor family

Robinson said waiting for an organ transplant, which often takes years, is a difficult process and it comes with the knowledge that someone has to die in order for you to live.

"There's a real head game that goes around with organ donation. You really do carry a huge degree of guilt along with it and everyone needs to be able to heal in their own way."

'A huge degree of gratitude'

After hearing Wynden's desire to connect, Robinson admits she's always felt bad about not having written a letter to her donor's family — something she has considered but grappled with.

"There's a huge degree of gratitude. But it's a difficult thing to express," she told Wynden.

After hearing Joan Wynden's need to hear from a recipient who lives on with her brother's organs, Sherry Robinson has promised to contact the family who donated a liver 20 years ago. (Pixabay)

She also promised Wynden after their conversation that she would contact the donor, if that option is still available.

"Perhaps this will spur the people who were recipients of your brother's organs," Robinson said.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Lisa Ayuso. Produced by Kristin Nelson.


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