'Unbelievably heartbreaking': Sask. nurse left waiting for transplant as province suspends organ donation program
Krystal Graham has been on the liver transplant waitlist for about a year. Now, she says she is concerned COVID-19 will delay her life-saving surgery even longer.
Saskatchewan has suspended its organ donation program indefinitely as part of the health authority’s COVID-19 surge plan. For the time being, the province will only provide immediate tissue donations, particularly for ocular patients.
“Unfortunately, that has been one of the side effects of the surge capacity management that we’ve had to do to support ICU care in the province,” said Lori Garchinski, tertiary care director for the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
Garchinski said organ donation coordinators are being moved to help intensive care patients in Regina and Saskatoon.
As a result of the program suspension, Garchinski said if an organ donor dies, those organs would not go to anyone.
“Unfortunately, that gift and that registration that they so kindly provided would not be able to come to fruition,” she said.
Graham, 37, suffers from a rare genetic liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC). She was diagnosed when she was nine years old and received her first liver transplant when she was 24.
Krystal Graham following her first liver transplant. (Supplied: Krystal Graham)
Krystal Graham following her first liver transplant. (Supplied: Krystal Graham)
Saskatchewan does not perform liver transplants, which meant Graham had to go to Edmonton for the surgery.
The year-long recovery process was challenging as she went through multiple anti-rejection drugs, she said, but it was worth it in the end
“It’s just such a great feeling that someone did that for me,” Graham said.
“I got my life back.”
The disease came back six years ago, and she is in need of a second liver transplant. She said it’s a daunting process made worse by the program suspension.
“This is just so unbelievably heartbreaking,” said Graham, who became a licensed practitioner nurse after her first transplant.
“Not only do I have to wrap my head around needing another transplant and how scarce they already are, but now I have to worry about it even more.”
Graham said many factors go into finding the perfect match, including blood type and organ size. But she says the biggest challenge is the lack of organ donors in the country.
Last September, Saskatchewan launched an online organ and tissue donor registry. Graham is encouraging people to have that conversation with family members and register as donors.
According to 2020 data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information, roughly 4,400 people are waiting for transplants. Seventy-nine of those are in Saskatchewan.
Last year, two patients in the province died while waiting for a match.
“It’s tricky because (doctors) don’t know how quickly the disease will progress, so you kind of just wait and see what happens,” she said.
For the time being, Graham manages her symptoms with medication, plasma treatments and regular esophageal scopes. But she said she still deals with fatigue, nausea, gastrointestinal issues and esophageal bleeds.
Graham said a full liver transplant is the one thing that will fix it all.
“Transplants are very hard and the recovery process is very hard, but I know I’ll get my life back, live life to the fullest and make so many new, happy memories,” she said.
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