Thursday, July 12, 2012

Parade of Hope

Everyone loves a parade. There is excitement in the air, cheers, laughter and easy-going anticipation. For Calgarians, the Calgary Stampede Parade is the mother of all parades. People camp out overnight to secure a seat along the parade route. I've never seen anything like it - it just takes over the whole downtown core.

This year as part of my involvement with the Canadian Transplant Games, I decided to head down to the parade staging area to take some pictures of the float the Canadian Transplant Association was putting in the parade. I'm organizing their Facebook page and Twitter account and thought pictures would be a great way to help create awareness about the games and of course, organ donation.

Walking through the staging area itself was very cool. I've never seen so many different horses...or so many horses in one spot (there are something like 750 horses in the parade...I only saw a fraction of that and was impressed).  Eventually I found my way through horses (and one very giant bull tied to a small trailer) to where all the floats were waiting. I could spot the Canadian Transplant Association float no problem...lots of green! As I got closer, I couldn't help but be taken with it. It really did a fantastic job of telling the story of organ donation. The back part would be where several recipients would ride, waving, cheering and showing people what a second chance at life looked like. 

They had great shirts made for recipients which showed what they had received and when. It was a great visual. While I was watching one of the youngest recipients put on his shirt, I was reminded of one of the magical side effects of the games - connecting people with similar health experiences together. Being a place where transplant patients can feel more normal. When the boy had put on his shirt that said "Heart 2004" one of the moms of another little girl there said to her daughter  "Look - he has the Same shirt AND year as you". I remember what it was like being a kid that age and I can only imagine how neat it was for both the kids to find another kid who had a heart transplant the same year.

The car pulling the float was decorated in a beautifully simple tribute to the donors. I have to admit I was a little overwhelmed when I first saw it. While the donors were of mixed ages, the majority of them were so young, with so much life ahead of them. I confirmed later  what I suspected - that most if not all the photos were indeed deceased donors. It was sad to know that there was tragic situations that had impacted the lives of all these people. At the same time though, knowing that each donor may have donated to up to eight people (not including soft tissue, bone donation which can help dozens more), these pictures represented easily over 100 lives saved. Pretty inspiring. The donors are most definitely heroes, as are their families that made the choice to give that gift of life. I found myself wanting to know more about the people in the pictures  - who they had been and what made their families make the choice they did. It is an amazing legacy to leave.

Someone (not me) did comment a little later in the morning that perhaps some photos of living donors should have been added. I can't speak for all living donors but I kind of liked it the way it was. Sure, we are all donors but a part of me thinks deceased donors and their families are in a league of their own - this was an opportunity to let what they did be the focus.

A few family members of donors were there to be part of the parade and honour the gift their family member made. I briefly got to know one mother and neice who were there to honour their "Tiffy". Tiffany Lynn Cox was a 19 year old who had her whole life ahead of her when she died as a result of fire in 2009. Three years later, it was evident that their pain was still raw and still very much there.Their participation in the parade was part of the healing process for the family. As I listened to Tiffany's Mom talk throughout the morning about her daughter, the fire and her decision to donate Tiffany's organs, I was struck by how much she reminded me of my Mom. In reality they are nothing alike but the pride, the fierce love and they wanting to protect her daughter very much mirror qualities I have seen in my Mom over the years. What was also interesting was that Tiffany's Mom was not originally a supporter of organ donation. But when tragedy struck their family, she knew what Tiffany would have wanted, even if it went against her own beliefs. And in doing so, she said it has helped her immensely to know that Tiffany lives on in five other people. 

I met another Mom who was on the other side of the spectrum. Her son, Jason Letourneau, was born with a major heart defect and spent much of his childhood travelling from Saskatchewan to Sick Kids in Toronto as well as Edmonton to get treatment. When he was 22 he received a heart transplant, a gift his family will be forever grateful for. He worked hard to honour that gift, working and volunteering for many community organizations including the Canadian Transplant Association. Sadly, Jason passed away early 2012 of Pneumonia. "His heart was still doing fine" his mother boasted to me.  "He just was unlucky and seemed to get everything else...H1N1, you name it". She said even though they lost him at 40, he had lived so much longer than they thought he would as a child and they were thankful for that transplant every single day. Being so close in age to Jason, I couldn't help but reflect on how much living I had done in the last 18 years. While forty is too young to die, those 18 years of quality life post transplant he had were an amazing gift he wouldn't have had otherwise. We can do a lot in 18 years, especially we we make the most of everyday. When his Mom learned of my social media love/involvement she lit up and asked if I had known Jason. He had loved Twitter and all that "other social media stuff". I knew of him but hadn't known him. I wish I had gotten the chance.

At the last minute, I ended up having an invitation to walk along the float in the parade. It was truly an honour and a once in a lifetime experience - how could I say no? What was most wonderful was how awesome Calgarians were all along the parade route. When spectators realized what our float was all about, the cheers and clapping grew louder. People yelled out things like "Yay organs!" and "Congratulations transplant people" and "Organ donation rocks!". I found myself a couple of times overcome with what I have become a part of, as a donor. Yep, there I was, tearing up in the middle of 6th Ave, walking in a parade, somewhat behind a dancing horse mascot and ahead of a marching band. It was a pretty surreal, but awesome experience.