Why this Island woman is giving part of her liver to a complete stranger

Trina Doyle describes herself as many things. She’s a mom, a daughter, a dog-lover, and pretty soon, she’ll be adding organ donor to that list.

For the last 10 months, Doyle has been preparing to donate part of her liver to someone in need — and that person is a complete stranger.

The single mom of two from Tignish, P.E.I., will soon be travelling to Toronto General Hospital, where she will donate a portion of her liver through the University Health Network’s living organ donor program.  

Doyle may never meet the person who receives her liver, but she said that never factored into her decision to donate.

I just feel like it’s what I need to do … knowing that I can help, I just really want to. — Trina Doyle

“It’s not about finding out who it is, it’s just about helping them,” Doyle said.

“This person has probably been living with illness for quite a while in order to be on the transplant list and going through a lot. So the little bit that I do is small compared to what they have to go through.”

Always wanted to be a donor

Doyle said the decision to become a donor began when she was a teenager and found out a child in her community needed a bone marrow transplant.

“The information they gave me at the time … brought things into perspective that you know, these people need this help,” Doyle said.

Doyle submitted her application to become a living kidney or liver donor just before Christmas in 2018 and by the following spring she started testing to find out if she was eligible to donate. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

Though she wasn’t a match in that case, Doyle said she was inspired to find other ways to help people in need. When she moved to Saint John to attend university she started donating blood — giving as often as she could — and signed up to become a stem-cell donor.

“In the last couple years somebody had posted something on Facebook about donating organs and I thought, ‘Oh I don’t think I’m on that registry so I should sign up,'” Doyle said.

She submitted her application to become a living donor just before Christmas in 2018. The following spring she started testing to find out if she was eligible to donate.

Months of testing

Doyle began doing tests with her family doctor on P.E.I. and soon started travelling to Moncton, N.B., for more specific testing before heading to Toronto for the final round of exams.

Dr. Nazia Selzner is the medical director of the Live Donor Liver Program at the Soham and Shaila Ajmera Family Transplant Centre with the University Health Network. She said patient safety is the top concern and steps are taken to ensure donors are physically and emotionally healthy enough to go through the surgery.

Doyle says she will have to leave her children, Bradley, 17, and Addison, 8, and her dog Baloo for nearly a month while she recovers from surgery in Toronto. (Submitted by Trina Doyle)

Selzner said tests include MRIs and CT scans to look at liver health as well as tests to detect infections, and monitor heart and lung health.

The program also tries to make sure donors are ready for the surgery in other ways, she said, including psychiatric assessments, financial planning, surgical risk consultation and support during the recovery process.

Living donations reduce wait times

Selzner said since the program began in 2000, over 900 liver transplants from living donors have been performed and about 10 per cent of those donations came from donors who didn’t know the recipient.

At any given time there can be up to 200 people on the wait-list to get a liver donation in Toronto alone, she said. This is often because patients are waiting for a deceased donor, which in some cases can take too long.  

“For a deceased donor you have to wait until your turn comes,” she said. “There are always sicker patients that are added to the list so you never actually know when you can get a transplant and sometimes you may wait for years.”

Doyle says her copy of the University Health Network’s liver donor manual is now worn around the edges after reading it countless times over the last few months. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

She said each year about 30 per cent of people in need of a transplant die waiting for a donor, including patients who may be very sick, but fail to meet the criteria to get a liver from a deceased donor.

Selzner said living organ donations help reduce wait times and, as a result, can improve the long-term outcome of having a transplant.

“Transplantation through a live donation means that the organ is retrieved from a healthy donor,” she said. “So the quality of the organs are excellent.”

She said the fact that the surgery is planned is also a benefit because it can be scheduled for a time when both donor and recipient are at their healthiest and doctors can better prepare for the procedure.

Selzner said most healthy people between the age of 16 and 60 could be eligible to donate. She said just a few weeks after surgery, the donor’s liver will return to its original size.

“The liver has this beautiful ability to regenerate,” she said. “The liver will grow back to full size in the donor, but also the piece that is transplanted into the recipient grows to full size.”

Nerves turning into excitement

For Doyle, waiting for the call was the hardest part and now that she knows the program found a match, those nerves are starting to fade away.

She’ll have to stay in the hospital for about a week after her surgery and then stay in Toronto for at least two more weeks so doctors can monitor her recovery.

Some family members are going with her and will be there by her side.

‘It’s bringing awareness to our whole community,’ says Trina Doyle’s sister, Lorna Doyle-Desroches. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

“We’re all very proud of her and it’s an incredible thing,” said her sister Lorna Doyle-DesRoches. 

“There’s no lines of what you can do in life, it’s just, there’s no limits and she’s definitely jumped on this and never thought twice.”

“If anybody was going to do it, it would be her,” said her father, Lorne Doyle. 

Doyle-DesRoches said there’s been an outpouring of support from the community, offering everything from cash donations to gift cards to help Doyle and her family while she’s in Toronto. Others have approached her looking for information about how they can become donors themselves.

“It’s bringing awareness to our whole community,” she said. 

‘There’s a lot of lives that can be saved’

After the surgery, Doyle said she’s allowed to write a letter the recipient of her liver can one day read if they want to. 

Otherwise, they may remain strangers forever.

But for Doyle, the most important part of this experience has been her chance to raise awareness about living organ donation and show others that if she can do it, maybe they can too.

Doyle says many in her community have offered support, from cash donations to gift cards, to help her family while she’s in Toronto. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

“I’m really hoping that people become aware of the need that there is for living donors,” Doyle said. 

“If more people sign up and commit to doing these things then there’s a lot of lives that can be saved.”

As she gets closer to her surgery date, Doyle said there are some moments when she feels afraid. But if overcoming those fears means she may save a life and even inspire someone else to try to do the same, she said it will all be worth it.

“I just feel like it’s what I need to do … knowing that I can help, I just really want to.”

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