11 years later, Ottawa family reflects on 'miracle' organ donation

11 years later, Ottawa family reflects on 'miracle' organ donation

Every year, James Luff writes a letter to the family of the person who donated the heart and lungs that saved his life and gave him time with his three children he never expected to have. This year he'll send his 11th letter.

"I try to let them know about how grateful [I am] to be able to have that relationship with my children and know them," Luff told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

In 2006, his wife Catherine Christie-Luff was pregnant with twins and their daughter Abigail was two-and-a-half. Then, that May long weekend, he suddenly became sick.

"I started to cough up blood — quite a lot of it — and it wouldn't stop, so I got a drive to the Civic [hospital]," he said. "They put one of those oxygen sensors on my finger, and immediately it went into emergency, and then I never left the hospital after that."

Doctors figured out a heart defect he'd had since birth was creating pressure that made the blood vessels in his lungs brittle. They couldn't fix it in Ottawa, so they had Luff airlifted to Toronto.

Meanwhile, doctors told Catherine to brace herself for the worst.

"When the hospital called they said that he's basically a dead man walking. His lungs are so deteriorated that it's surpising that he's been walking around for the past year," she said.

"We went from getting the house ready for the birth of twins to just absolutely devastated."

'Zero per cent chance' of survival

They were told that there was a "zero per cent chance" that a donor heart and lungs would arrive in time to save Luff's life before the birth of their twins, so he started writing a letter to them, expecting never to see them.

But then, a suitable heart and lungs suddenly became available, an event Catherine calls a "miracle."

"It just went from the bleakest of times to having this ray of hope that just was absolutely incredible," she said. James was relieved, but also "terrified" about the surgery he was facing in Toronto.

"I was nervous for a while, but also very, very happy. An incredible feeling to going from writing a letter to children you don't think you'll ever see again, or ever, to, yeah, I'm going to make it, and I'm going to see these guys come into the world," he said.

Successful surgery

The transplant surgery was successful, and about six weeks later, James recovered well enough to be there for the birth of twins Violet and Angus.

He was only given a 40 per cent chance of survival with his new heart and lungs. But in June, he'll mark the 11th anniversary of his surgery, and he says his health has been "very good."

Although he doesn't know much about his donor, James says he thinks about him and his wife and children "all the time." He sends them a letter of thanks every year.

"I'm mainly expressing gratitude," he said. 

"And it's delicate, because while I understand that they lost someone, I sometimes will tell them about my children because I wouldn't have that relationship if it wasn't for them."

Correction : A photo caption in an earlier version of this story said that James Luff had his transplant at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. Luff actually underwent the procedure at Toronto General Hospital.(Apr 30, 2017 9:11 PM)