'A chance to live': Single mom of 5 shares profound impact of organ donation

Colleen Atsynia was in her mid-40's when diabetes forced her to leave her job, her family and her northern Quebec community of Wemindji for dialysis treatment in Montreal.

"When you first find out you need a transplant, to me it felt like, 'OK, that's it. I'm done. I'm just going to die,'" said Atsynia, who is a single mom to five children, ranging in age from four to 21. 

But then in May 2018, someone she doesn't know gave it all back to her by donating a kidney. 

"I was extremely happy because I knew I was going to finally come home, said Atsynia. "My kids were happy ... they were really happy."

She doesn't know anything about her donor except that they were the same age, and it's hard for her not to get emotional when asked about what the gift has meant to her.

You're giving someone a chance to live. - Colleen Atsynia, Wemindji 

"I feel so free. I'm able to do what I want, travel whenever I want and not [have to] work around the machine," said Atsynia, who encourages Cree people to sign their donor card. 

"You're giving someone else a chance to live." 

The Cree Board of Health and Social Services says there are currently 30 Cree patients on the Quebec transplant list of approximately 800 people. There are another 70 Cree patients currently receiving dialysis, who will likely need transplants in the years ahead. 

But those numbers are expected to grow significantly, according to Helen B. Shecapio-Blacksmith, director of Wiichihiituwin Department with the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay. She says there are 250 Cree patients who are considered pre-dialysis and could need transplants.  

submitted by Colleen Atsynia

"The numbers are exploding," said Shecapio-Blacksmith, adding her team is also seeing more patients like Atsynia or those even younger — people who are in the prime of their lives, with young families and careers. 

"We have mothers, Cree mothers. We have young fathers ... now we have kids who are waiting for a kidney," said Shecapio-Blacksmith. 

"These patients are just waiting for a kidney to go back to a normal life." 

Now we have kids who are waiting for a kidney. - Helen Shecapio-Blacksmith, director of Wiichihiituwin CBHSSJB

Shecapio-Blacksmith says it's important for more Cree to consider signing their organ donor card on the back of their driver's license. 

"It wasn't a subject that we used to talk about," said Shecapio-Blacksmith, adding she is starting to see that shift. 

"Now more and more Crees are interested ... which is really a positive."

Quebec Liberal MNA André Fortin recently tabled a private member's bill on presumed consent in the National Assembly. If Bill 399 passes, Quebecers will automatically be considered an organ or tissue donor, unless they register to opt out.

Shecapio-Blacksmith is encouraging anyone interested in finding out more to ask their doctor or local clinic about becoming a donor.

Stephane Gunner/CBC

Atsynia says she can't fully express what it has meant for her and her family. 

"It makes a real difference," she said. "When they say [there's a donor] it's nothing but mixed emotions ... happy, scared, everything."