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Record year for lung, heart transplants in B.C.

Beth Miller is one a number of people who were part of a record-breaking 2020, and that's even with COVID-19 circulating around the world. (Courtesy Beth Miller)

Beth Miller is one of a number of people who were part of a record-breaking year for lung, heart transplants

There were a record 55 recipients who received a lung transplant, while 33 people received a new heart

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – When Beth Miller received a call last summer that she would finally be getting a desperately needed lung transplant, she was overjoyed.

“I was just getting ready to walk out the door, and I got the phone call. The lung transplant program at Vancouver General Hospital called and said, ‘Okay. It’s your turn. We’ve got your lungs! You’ve got to get down here!’ And so, of course, I don’t know, a couple of profanities probably slipped out. It was very, ‘Holy you-know-what! Are you kidding me?'” she says with a chuckle.

Miller, who is in her 50s, said it was the next chapter of a long road that began in 2006, when she was diagnosed with scleroderma, an auto-immune disease.

“That’s what eventually led to the damage to my lungs – the pulmonary fibrosis – and pulmonary hypertension. So eventually, I had to stop working, I was on oxygen, full-time. I had a big, awful beast of a machine in my house that made a ton of noise! It sat in the spare bedroom all the time, and so I was on oxygen 24/7 for…I guess that started in 2016,” Miller explains.

All the Squamish resident could do was wait after her name was added to the list, which was also filled with some tense moments.

“Initially, I think probably let’s say for the first year or so, I was on hooks. Anytime the phone rang, it was a little bit of an, ‘Okay, I wonder if this is the call,’ because initially, maybe a month after I was listed, I did what they call a dry run, meaning they phoned and said, ‘Okay. We have a set of lungs for you. Get yourself down to the hospital.’ That’s sort of the first phone call they make, and then when they actually had a chance to actually take a look at the lungs, they decided, nope, these were not my lungs, called me back and said, ‘Sorry, false alarm,'” she says.

When the real call came, she had to call all her family back east and make arrangements for her post-operation recovery.

“I don’t think there’s anything that can ever prepare you for it,” she says, also noting that she was getting the transplant under the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A banner year: BC Transplant

Miller is one of a number of people who were part of a record-breaking 2020, and that’s even with the virus circulating around the world. There were a record 55 recipients who received a lung transplant, while 33 people – including three children – received a new heart.

The B.C. liver transplant program was also able to match their 2017 record with 80 livers transplanted in one year, while the kidney transplant program had decent numbers with 280 transplants.

Dr. Sean Keenan speaks for BC Transplant and says when comparing with some of the other years, last year’s stats are quite positive.

“The highest previous number for lung transplants was 52, and that was back a few years ago. For heart transplants, they’ve been gradually going up – they’re at 31 last year, and 28 the year before. Liver, our high was in 2017, and our last few years have been lower, but we went back up and matched it despite everything due to COVID,” he tells NEWS 1130.

On average, 50 people sign up daily to become a donor through B.C. Transplant, with Green Shirt Day also playing a role in raising awareness around the issue.

RELATED: Second Green Shirt Day moves online to raise awareness for organ donations, honour memory Logan Boulet

“It’s certainly been more challenging for people to register [recently]. In the past, the largest number of registrations came through Service BC and ICBC, and with the restrictions of COVID, that is not happening at the same level, but people can still register online. The overall number of people that are in the registry is 1.5 million, and we certainly encourage people to consider a donation and at least talk to their family and friends about it,” says Keenan.

He also recognizes some of the immediate transplant-related challenges when it comes to the virus, which can impact whether someone qualifies to become a donor if they’ve passed away from the virus.

“Pretty much, that’s an automatic rule-out. If you’re sick because of COVID, you would not be considered for organ donation during that hospitalization, and likewise, anybody who is being considered for donation is screened carefully for COVID infections and infectious disease specialists review the cases. So there’s this added layer of investigations just to try and ensure we don’t transmit COVID. It is technically possible for someone who had COVID in the past to become an organ donor, but it has to be at least a month before they could ever be considered,” he explains.

Keenan, however, is optimistic about the future of transplants in B.C.

“We’re going to continue trying to do what we’re doing, which is making sure that we allow anybody that wishes to be a donor that opportunity to do so, so that just means more and more education within the hospitals, and we’ve seen our numbers improving from that perspective. We’d also appreciate more support in the community to raise awareness and have people have discussions about this. It’s difficult to talk about death, and it’s not a popular subject, but it can help families so much if people have considered it, made the decision, and then let people know,” he says.

It’s a sentiment Miller shares as she reflects on the new chance she’s been given through her transplant. Before the transplant, she’d been getting into exercise – even going to the gym with her oxygen tanks – but that’s since changed.

“It makes me teary every time when I think of it, that some generous stranger made that decision. And the interesting thing is that in the last week or so, I’ve actually received a letter from my donor’s family, so I know a little bit about – like very little – they don’t release a lot of information unless both parties consent to it, so it’s still really early days, but it’s humbling to know that this family out there, at their absolute worst moment, were making a decision and had no qualms about making this decision. It was exactly what they thought their family member would want,” Miller says.

Miller is also grateful to those who took care of her throughout the entire experience.

“I think it’s fantastic, and I have nothing but respect for the program too, that they are able to, even given all the challenges they had this [past] year, with COVID, that they were able to maintain the numbers and even improve upon the numbers they’ve had in previous years. It’s a real testament to the people that work there, the doctors and nurses involved, all of the staff…I am amazed at what they’re able to accomplish, and how good they are at it.”

She’s also grateful to those who consider organ donation.

“It only takes two minutes to go online to B.C. Transplant and register yourself as a donor. It absolutely makes a huge difference in so many people’s lives…and I can speak to that personally. I’m grateful every single day that someone made that decision, and that we live here in Canada, that we live here in B.C., that we have this program, and that they’re doing such amazing work with it.”

-with files from David Zura