Susan Harrison was a happy, healthy working mom of two young daughters in Maple Ridge, B.C. when she was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune liver disorder.
"I became very, very itchy," she explained. "I was itchy all over. Believe me, that you can't ignore."
Harrison said her doctor ordered a blood test and then called her in urgently the next day saying something was very wrong. Harrison was diagnosed with primary billiary cirrhosis.
"My husband and I were both shocked. To be honest, for a time we thought they had made a mistake," she said.
"Soon after, I did get sicker and sicker and had to start giving up things in my life that I loved. I had to stop working and give up my lifelong love of running."
The solution was a liver transplant, and Harrison would be placed on the organ waiting list when she had a year to live.
Now, Harrison is sharing her story — and urges people to sign up for the donor registry — during National Organ And Tissue Donation Week.
'I was terrified'
Harrison spent the next seven years trying to keep as healthy as possible as the disease slowly progressed.
"I was terrified. Mostly for me, I wasn't finished raising my children. My youngest daughter was only 9 years old at that time."
Then Harrison's health quickly disintegrated.
"When we saw the transplant surgeon, he said he was sorry it was too late. They didn't think they would find a donor in time," she said.
"Five days after seeing him, I landed in emergency. Things just got worse and worse for me throughout that day. I knew it was the end and I really was getting ready to say goodbye to my husband and my children."
Harrison was on life support when a donor family came forward.
"They did that extraordinary act of kindness ... in their worst moment of tragedy."
'An incredible second chance'
Harrison received her liver donation over 15 years ago. Since that time, she and her husband have welcomed grandchildren.
"I've been given an incredible second chance at life and all the blessings that life brings ... I don't think you can really have words to say what that means.
"I think of my donor and my donor's family every day. Not just in the special occasions like Easter and Christmas but in the tiny moments when I'm sitting on the floor playing with my grandson."
Harrison even competed in the World Transplant Games in 2005, winning the three kilometre road race and sending her gold medal to her donor's family via B.C. Transplant.
"A year after I sent the medal, my donor's mother sent a letter to me. I carried that letter in my purse for a few years. It just meant the world to me to know that they had had some comfort knowing."
Harrison says she hopes her story will inspire British Columbians to sign up to be organ donors — which can be done online via the B.C. Transplant website.
"You can't take your organs with you when you leave this world. None of us can. Why not leave the world as a hero?"
Listen to the interview with Susan Harrison on CBC's The Early Edition