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Organ / Tissue Donation and Transplantation

One of Kathleen Stringer’s proudest moments as a mother came when her daughter, Rowan, received her driver’s licence in the mail nearly three years ago. A long-time hemodialysis nurse, Kathleen personally witnessed the life-changing impact that organ transplants had on her kidney dialysis patients. She was a vocal advocate for organ donation, especially with her two daughters, Rowan and Cassie.

“We had many kitchen-table discussions about organ transplants, starting when the girls were young,” recalls Kathleen. “My husband, Gordon, and I made sure they were aware that our wishes were to donate our organs.”

So when Rowan received her driver’s licence in the mail, accompanied by an organ donor card, she signed her name, sealed the envelope and walked down to the mailbox with her package the same day.

“I was so proud to know she had been listening over the years, and that she had the same outlook and values that I had.”

Tragically, it was this beautiful memory that sustained her when choosing to remove Rowan from life support and fulfil her daughter’s wishes just a few short months later.

“[Organ donation] might have been a hard decision, but we didn’t see it as our decision. It was Rowan’s decision, and it was important to respect her wishes,” Kathleen recalls.

A life-changing decision

A natural athlete, Rowan spent her youth in constant activity. Swimming, ringette, snowboarding, lacrosse and soccer were among her favourite sports.

She was enjoying an invigorating senior season as cocaptain of her school’s girls’ varsity rugby team when tragedy struck.

In a series of back-to-back games, Rowan was tackled several times and once kicked in the head quite hard.

The Stringers later found out Rowan suspected that the blow to her head had caused a concussion, but with no solid evidence and a strong desire to keep playing, she kept her concerns quiet and suited up for her team’s next game, just two days later.

After a demanding game, Rowan was hit with a poorly executed “swing tackle,” where an opposing player grabs her competitor by the shirt and swings her around and down to the ground through the force of momentum. She landed hard on her head. After sitting up briefly, she fell back down and was rushed to the hospital.

The teen athlete had suffered from Second Impact Syndrome, a condition where the brain is overwhelmed with fluids and swelling from two consecutive head traumas, pinching off blood and oxygen to the brain. She was placed on life support at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

The Stringers waited by Rowan’s bedside, willing her condition to improve. Instead, the swelling only worsened.

“We knew by that point she would never be ‘Rowan’ again, and we knew she wouldn’t ever want to live like that,” says Kathleen. “Choosing to honour her wishes gave us a new focus.”

Leaving a legacy

Kathleen’s first brown envelope came on what would have been Rowan’s 18th birthday — June 25, 2013.

Many not-for-profit organ agencies, including Ontario’s Trillium Gift of Life Network, allow organ recipients to anonymously communicate with donor families through letters mailed by the organization. The letter’s author had received Rowan’s heart and offered a short, but heartfelt, expression of gratitude for his second chance at life.

The second envelope arrived just before Christmas that same year. A 13-year-old boy, who had spent most of his life on nocturnal dialysis, received Rowan’s kidney. He was so excited to be going to his very first sleepover party, which also happened to be one of Rowan’s favourite things to do.

In addition to these moving letters, Kathleen also received a poignant offer of gratitude in person, from the recipient of Rowan’s lungs. After first connecting through a Facebook group dedicated to Rowan, the pair met in the recipient’s home province of New Brunswick and talked for hours about life and family. Born with cystic fibrosis, the young wife and mother was nearing the end of her life before receiving a double-lung transplant. The transplant allowed her to start over with her three adopted children.

“When we got the phone call that all of Rowan’s transplants were successful, it gave us a new focus and lifted our spirits. We were so proud that she had made this choice that also helped us grieve her death.”

Today, the Stringers continue to honour Rowan’s memory in many ways. They regularly share their story at donor and fundraising events for organizations such as Canadian Blood Services and The Kidney Foundation of Canada, encouraging others to consider organ donation.

They are also heavily involved in education surrounding concussion prevention and awareness in schools. Together with their local MPP, Lisa MacLeod, the Stringers are working to launch Rowan’s Law, an initiative to ensure better treatment for concussion-related injuries in Ontario. For more information, visit the Rowan’s Law website at rowanslaw.ca.


 
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