Every morning when Gwen Livingston wakes up she is grateful. She is grateful for family gatherings and to be able to play with her grandchildren. She is grateful to be able to move freely around her home. She is grateful each and every time she inhales.
Breathing is something most of us do without thinking, and on average, an adult breathes about 12 to 20 times per minute. That’s more than 17,000 breaths per day. But imagine if each and every breath was a struggle. Imagine feeling constantly breathless and tired, even while doing simple daily activities like climbing the stairs. That is how Gwen used to feel every day.
Gwen has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. In November 2018, after several years of her condition worsening, her lungs were only working at 15 per cent capacity.
Every day was a battle. She had to give up the activities she loves so much. She had to stop working. All physical activity was challenging; she even had to crawl up her stairs on her hands and knees. She was almost at the point of being bed-ridden, and it was even difficult for her to speak. She had been approved and added to the waitlist for a life-saving lung transplant, but had to be put on palliative care while she waited. She was worried that she would lose her fight and that she wouldn’t have the chance to meet her fifth grandchild.
Then, she got the call. The call that 600 Albertans with end stage organ failure wait for each day – offering a second chance at life. Gwen and her husband immediately drove up from Calgary to the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute (Maz). They didn’t speak about her surgery the whole drive. Gwen’s husband was nervous, but Gwen felt at peace. She knew she was going to make it through and her life was about to change.
Life-changing Transplant Innovation
Gwen was part of the first in human clinical trial of the Ex-Vivo Organ Support[EB1] System (EVOSS), an automated and portable device designed to preserve donor organs by mimicking the human body, run by Dr. Jayan Nagendran and Dr. Darren Freed at the or Maz. EVOSS was used to keep donor lungs, which would normally not be accepted for transplant, alive outside of the donor, allowing the lungs to be tested and evaluated to see if they could be made viable.
In February 2019, she successfully received a double lung transplant from a donor who had been on 100 per cent oxygen before they passed away. Once the lungs were put on EVOSS, testing showed that their function was improving. Eventually, they were ready for transplantation. The surgery went ahead, taking about five hours.
Gwen vividly remembers the moment her breathing tube was removed and she began breathing with her new lungs. Gwen tears up as she recalls, “I took my first breath. A real big breath. I couldn’t believe it.”
In the trial, 11 other transplant recipients also successfully received donor lungs, which would otherwise not have been used. That’s 12 lives saved.
A New Lease on Life
Gwen took on her rehabilitation with enthusiasm, and now, she describes every day as a gift. She has returned to the activities she loves – chasing after her grandchildren, going on bike rides, even hiking and canoeing. Because of COVID-19, she had to cancel plans to visit some family in Prince Edward Island, but she’s excited to visit them back home once she is able. She’s looking forward to a family camping trip nearby this summer instead.
She finds it hard to fully explain the gratitude and gratefulness she has to everyone who contributed to saving her life.
“The healthcare I received from all the staff, from my surgeon, Dr. Nagendran, and his team, from the physiotherapy team, and everyone else who took care of me, was just unbelievable.”
She is especially thankful to her organ donor and their family members. She has been in contact with the family and hopes to meet them in person soon.
“It’s a gift of life. I still can’t believe that I can get up and do everything I want to do,” says Gwen. “Things many people take for granted are a gift for me. You can give the greatest gift in the world by being an organ donor