Grateful organ recipients reunite in Sarnia for rousing ‘transplant’ party

The eight guests of honour, all breathing with donated lungs, are, from left, back row: Tara Bourque, Mike Shazer, Cathy Pritchard, Carol Simmons and Dave Brown; front row: Dean Murray, Linda Townson and Brian Hanna. Tara Jeffrey

Tara Jeffrey

When the guests began arriving at Judy and Dave Brown’s Sarnia home recently, it definitely wasn’t your average backyard barbecue.

“You’ve put on so much weight!” they joyfully exclaimed each time someone new opened the gate, amid rousing cheers and tears of joy.

“I know,” a woman’s voice bellowed. “I can’t stop eating … it’s the best thing in the world!”

Another chimed in, clutching a lawn chair in one hand and pointing to his mid-section with the other. “Check it out — I’ve put on 20 pounds!”

Some didn’t even recognize each other.

After all, the last time this group of tight-knit friends was together they were pale, thin, and desperate while waiting on new lungs at Toronto General Hospital.

“We were all in the same boat, waiting for the call,” said host Judy Brown, whose 74-year-old husband Dave received a new lung in March 2017, after spending months waiting in Toronto.

“When you see the same people three times a week, meet their children, see them at their best and worst — I call it our transplant family,” she added.

“They’re always there for you.”

She decided to get the gang all back together on June 23 — seven men and women from across Ontario who have each undergone successful lung transplants over the past 18 months, breathing easier with a new lease on life: Linda Townson, 61, from Sarnia; Carol Simmons, 60, from Paris, Ont.; Mike Shazer, 60, from Mississauga; Brian Hanna, 66, from Sudbury; Cathy Pritchard, 54, from Guelph; and Dean Murray, 71, from Owen Sound.

Judy also invited Tara Bourque, who got to know Dave and Linda through physiotherapy in Sarnia, before they were listed for lungs and moved to Toronto.

Bourque, who turns 25 this month, has been on the waiting list for new lungs for more than two years now, following her first transplant in 2012.

“It’s inspiring to see so many successes, when usually it’s the negatives that you hear of — the people that don’t make it,” she said. “Everyone becomes a family when you go through this sort of thing, so it’s nice.”

Today in Ontario, more than 1,500 people are waiting for a life-saving transplant, and every three days someone will die waiting. A single donor can benefit more than 75 people and save up to eight lives.

“We lost some along the way,” said Townson. “When you look around here, you realize we’ve all got a second chance. We’ve all made it, at least a year now.”

Judy said the Sarnia Organ Donor Awareness Group — a local, nonprofit — helped relieve some of the financial burdens. The volunteer group provides help with non-medical expenses for individuals in Lambton County before and after transplant.

She wanted to throw the party — not only to get everyone back together — but also to show those awaiting a transplant there is hope; that there is a light at the end of what can be a long and uncertain tunnel.

Centrepiece of the Browns’ barbecue spread were these “lung” cakes, in white and chocolate.
Tara Jeffrey

“Judy was like the mom of the group,” Carol Simmons said of their time together in Toronto. “She kept everyone connected.”

Last to arrive was Murray, who drove from Owen Sound. He received a double lung transplant 18 months ago.

His voice shook with emotion when asked how he felt seeing everyone again.

“Amazing,” he said looking around, fighting back tears. “It’s been quite a ride.”

Their illnesses varied from emphysema to idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. As post-transplant patients, they’ll endure a multitude of side effects and will be on medication the rest of their lives.

“But we’re here, and we’re breathing,” said Townson. “So we’re good.”

For more information on organ donation, including how to register, or check your registration status, visit www.beadonor.ca