“It’s great to win a bronze medal, but it’s even more great to be alive.”
Carol Epp of Langham is full of life after receiving a liver transplant 11 years ago.
“I was given an incredible gift,” said Epp in a phone interview from Vancouver on Wednesday, July 4 where she won a bronze medal in Women’s 10-pin bowling at the Canadian Transplant Games. “I got an additional 11 years of living that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“My life was literally hanging by a thread when I had the operation in March of 2007. I received a new liver from a donor in the nick of time. I’ve been blessed with five grandchildren I would never have had the chance to see if it wasn’t for my donor.”
The 68-year-old said she developed a liver disease in her mid-50s after she was infected with a virus. The symptoms were gradual, and by the time she was diagnosed, the disease had progressed to a very advanced stage.
“I found I had less energy,” she said. “I was laying down a lot, and was getting sicker and sicker, and finally got to the point where I couldn’t do anything.
“The liver is the organ that cleans the toxins out of your body. If your liver isn’t working properly, then the toxins take over. Your physical health deteriorates, and also your mental state. You get very confused.
“A healthy liver is supposed to be soft, like a marshmallow. At the end, my liver was hard and brittle, like an eraser. It couldn’t absorb any toxins because the blood wasn’t pumping through.”
After a three-day assessment at an Edmonton hospital, Epp was put on the waiting list for a liver transplant.
“Those were very tough days,” she said. “Just the anxiety of waiting to hear if you’re on the list or not is very trying.”
Epp was on the waiting list for two years before a suitable donor was found.
“In November, 2006, I was down to 135 pounds, and I felt like the end was very near. I was throwing up all the time, and very sick,” she said. “I had been in Royal University Hospital for seven months. I missed my daughter’s wedding because I was too sick.
“At that point I couldn’t take anymore, and I went home and told my husband to set up the Christmas tree in the living room, and put all the kids’ pictures on the wall so I could see them. I really thought this was the end.”
But in March, 2007, she received a liver from a male donor.
“It was exciting, but also pretty scary, because they’re going to remove a part of your body,” she said. “After the operation, I immediately felt better, even though the surgery takes a lot out of you. After that there was a lot of physio and education about diet.
“The odd thing was that immediately after the operation, I had this craving for a Pepsi and a bacon and tomato sandwich. I never had that kind of craving before. I wondered if my donor really liked those particular foods.”
Epp said the experience of undergoing an organ transplant is life-changing, as well as life-extending.
“Unless you’ve gone through it, or have a family member who has, you really can’t understand it fully,” she said. “It’s the same for donor families. Losing a loved one is such a tragic thing, but to know that your loved one’s donation has given someone else a new lease on life, is very inspiring.”
The Canadian Transplant Games, held every two years, provide both organ recipients and donor families with a chance to share their experiences.
“I’ve been to the Canadian Transplant Games in Windsor, Quebec City, Calgary, Moncton, Toronto, and now here in Vancouver,” said Epp. “In the years in between, there is a World Transplant Games competition. There is a bunch of us planning to go to the world games in Houston in 2021.”
Epp said donors have a special place in the hearts of all recipients. The families of donors are given places of honour at all the games. She said often, competitors turn their medals over to donor families out of sheer gratitude.
She said the late Logan Boulet, one of the Humboldt Broncos players who was killed in the tragic bus crash in April 2018, is a true hero.
“He donated his organs so that others may live,” said Epp. “His family is here at the Games, and there is a special ceremony to honour him. The headstone on Logan’s grave has the Canadian Transplant Association symbol on it.”
She said the Canadian Transplant Games, which also attracts competitors from the United States and Mexico, draw people together
“We’re one big family,” she said. “It’s a competition, but it’s much more than that. It’s a celebration of life.”
Epp urged everyone to talk to their families about becoming an organ donor.
“Don’t take your organs to heaven,” she said. “Heaven knows we need them here.”