To say Jillian Best has been keeping busy since conquering Lake Ontario last summer would be an understatement.
The 34-year-old liver transplant recipient, who completed the epic 18-hour, 52-kilometre swim in August, is making big waves in and beyond London, from raising awareness about organ transplants to receiving awards and training for swim competitions.
Through her Move for Life Foundation, Best and her team recently donated $150,000 to buy equipment for the organ transplant unit at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) — a program Best credits with saving both her life and her mother’s life, twice.
“I feel really honoured,” Best said of the money she’s helped to raise since her swim.
“It kind of scratches that itch that I've had since I've had my transplant to give back in a big way and do something that is going to impact the people that are in a place where I once was. It's giving hope to people that are on a transplant waiting list . . . I'm just amazed at what was accomplished in a year.”
Best joined members of the Move for Life team and Mayur Brahmania, her medical adviser and a transplant unit doctor, outside University Hospital Thursday to celebrate the fundraising progress, an investment she says will “increase the number of transplants that can happen . . . and save more lives.”
LHSC will be the first hospital in Canada to use the equipment for a practice called abdominal regional perfusion (ARP) to preserve donated livers to keep them viable longer. It allows more livers to be transplanted and wait times for transplants to be reduced, Brahmania said.
“(ARP) has been done in a few places in the world, but we'll be the first in Canada," he said.
The goal is to create a clinical and research program at LHSC, in which the practice can be used for other organs, including kidneys and hearts, Brahamania said. “Part of the funding Jillian has raised for us will support that as well.”
But the fundraising doesn’t stop with the cross-lake swim. The Move for Life team intends to make a splash next summer by raising the remainder of its $250,000 goal through a 1,600-kilometre swim, bike and run relay across Ontario.
“We chose that number because that's currently the number of people waiting in Ontario for an organ transplant,” Best said. Proceeds from the event will help cover costs to maintain the ARP machine for up to three years.
A force to be reckoned with, and an inspiration to many, Best entered the lake at Niagara-on-the-Lake on Aug. 3 and finished on Aug. 4 at Toronto’s Marilyn Bell Park.
Bell was the first to swim across the lake — as a 16-year-old in 1954. Best's name appears next to Bell's legendary name on a plaque at Queen’s Royal Park in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
“I'm now officially on this plaque along with Marilyn Bell, which makes me really proud,” Best said, adding the two spoke on the phone before and after her swim.
The plaque unveiling, which Best attended last month, came about a month after she was named the recipient of the 2021 Swim Ontario Masters Special Achievement Award.
And if making history as the first organ transplant recipient to complete the swim wasn’t impressive enough, Best, who swims with the Middlesex Masters team, has been training for future swim competitions. The main one, Best said, is the 2023 World Transplant Games, where she earned five gold medals and set five world records in 2019.
“You could say I am training for those games already. I want to keep training for those,” she said. “I intend to beat my own records that I set for 2019 games.”
Still, between her busy schedule of training, heading a non-profit and giving speeches, the powerhouse works as a full-time hairstylist, too.
“I work full-time hours and then a lot of my spare time goes to organizing things for Move for Life. It’s like my baby," she said.
Though Best has little room for new clients, she said there is one pair of customers who recently caught her attention.
“Somebody reached out to me at the end of the summer, and he said, ‘I just would love to meet you. My daughter has had a kidney transplant and I think it would be great for her to meet you as well.’ ”
The man and his daughter, a university student, came for a haircut last month.
“He was really honoured to meet me and he wanted to talk about the foundation. I just thought that was really cool.”
Fundraising goal: $250,000. Raised so far $180,000
To donate: Visit moveforlifefoundation.com
To watch her epic swim: Visit Bests's YouTube page.
Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press