In 2003, Grace Dowker had a nagging cold that lasted a long time – about two months.
The Black Creek nurse working out of the Campbell River Hospital finally went to the ER after a case of really bad heartburn.
She was convinced it may have been pneumonia – so much so she told the ER doctor it was.
“He listened to my heart and looked at me and said: ‘Grace – you’re in congestive heart failure.’ ”
Sixteen years later, Dowker is approaching the one year anniversary of her new heart.
She is one of the hundreds of people across the province who successfully underwent a heart transplant, but she considers herself lucky as currently there are 680 people currently waiting for a transplant – of any organ – within B.C.
When she was first diagnosed, she spent some time trying to repair her heart value.
She was initially kept in ICU at the hospital in Campbell River before being transferred to Victoria. At that time, explained Dowker, there was some discussion of a heart transplant.
“I met with the surgeon, but he felt it was almost all a valve problem.”
She began to try a variety of medications to see if the valve could heal – which it did. Every month, Dowker underwent an echocardiogram and saw her heart improve slightly, but there was a downside to taking all of the required medications.
“(They are) hard. I was literally in bed for a year. I’d get up, brush my teeth, and then go back to bed for 10 minutes. It wasn’t a good year.”
While further tests showed that her valve was improving, it was significantly stretched to accommodate her heart. Doctors believe the trouble began through a virus, but couldn’t be certain.
Throughout the course of 15 years, Dowker was getting better, but as she went through a crisis, her meds had to be tweaked. In 2010, she had surgery for cancer and her medications had to change again.
In 2017, she noticed swelling in her belly and she was retaining fluid; her meds were once again changed but she knew something wasn’t right. She officially retired from nursing and was admitted to hospital to receive a diuretic to reduce the fluid.
She was transferred once again to hospital in Victoria, then the St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver where she was placed at the top of a list for a heart transplant.
Dowker was discharged from hospital, but asked to stay in the Lower Mainland. A few days after leaving the hospital, she received a phone call that a heart was available.
• • •
After a four hour surgery, Dowker woke up with a new heart.
Although her one year anniversary since the surgery is in late June, she said her mind is still grappling with the idea that a family, in the midst of their grief, would let go of their loved one’s body and give life to another.
“I’ve been involved in lots of different deaths (over my years as a nurse). In their grief, they thought of others.”
Following the surgery, she remained in the Vancouver area for three months for regular biopsies to ensure her heart was functioning well.
She will remain on anti-rejection drugs for the rest of her life, and has some dietary restrictions such as no unpasteurized foods, no raw meat or seafood and she must follow a low sodium diet.
On Oct. 31, 2018, she was able to return to her home in Black Creek, and has to return for testing every two-and-a-half months.
After her anniversary date in June, she will receive an echocardiogram, a chest x-ray and a biopsy, and if everything is working well, she will return on a yearly basis for testing.
“The first year is quite a journey,” she said. “You definitely have rabbit holes that you go through.”
She credited a significant amount of her recovery to the support she received, particularly from her co-workers at the Campbell River Hospital and encouragement and prayers from her church and extended family from around the world.
“How many people do not have support? I don’t know how you can get through something like this without it. The girls on the ward made a pack, and I received hundreds of notes and cards during the time I was in Vancouver. Every day, I got at least one envelope – a couple of doctors even got into it. You can’t thank people enough for that.
“I don’t know what I would have done without those girls.”
• • •
April 21 to 27 is National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week in B.C. Currently, there are 1,395,534 British Columbians who are registered donors.
In 2018, the transplant wait list for was 669.
According to the Canadian Council for Donation and Transplantation, the majority of Canadians – 96 per cent – approve either strongly or somewhat of donation.
The awareness of organ donation is growing, particularly in the wake of the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy in 2018.
This year, the family of Logan Boulet is holding the inaugural Green Shirt Day in honour of their son and the Broncos family to increase awareness about the importance of organ donation.
Green Shirt Day is Sunday, April 7.
Dowker encourages everyone to consider becoming an organ donor, as she has experienced a variety of perspectives working in health care.
“I have seen people grieving and have talked to them face to face during that moment. You don’t want to be having (a donation) conversation at a time of loss. So if you can make your wishes known beforehand, it makes it so much easier.”
To get more information or to register in the BC Organ Donor Registry, visit https://register.transplant.bc.ca/