It is the happiest and saddest gift.
“It’s sad that somebody has to die so you can live,” says a patient, an oxygen mask over his face, as he waits for an organ donation at the University of Alberta Hospital in the new documentary Memento mori.
The film centres on the emotional pendulum experienced by those caught in the drama of receiving and giving organs — and the doctors who make it all happen.
Described as both harrowing and heartbreaking, the film is directed by Edmontonian Niobe Thompson and produced by Rosvita Dransfeld and Bonnie Thompson. Their cameras zooms in on families praying for miracle donations, or dealing with ultimate, impending loss.
Those faced with the death of a loved one are also asked to wrestle with the prospect of organ donation.
Carl Babchishin and Leslie Keith agreed to allow the filmmakers into the room as they faced the fact their 28-year-old son Matthew had been declared brain-dead. They decided to donate his organs.
‘What would Matthew want?’
“We asked, ‘What would Matthew want? What would Matthew do?’ Matthew was a very giving person and he made a lot of us better people, including myself,” Carl Babchishin told CBC Edmonton AM on Wednesday.
“We just knew that he’d want to keep on giving and in a way we guess that he’s still up there giving, looking down upon the world.”
The Babchishin family exposed themselves to the cameras. In one scene, Keith says her final good-byes to her son as he is wheeled to an operating room for his organs to be retrieved.
The family’s decision was heroic, Thompson said.
The family of Matthew Babchishin gathered at his bedside at the University of Alberta Hospital after he suffered cardiac arrest. Their story was captured in the documentary film Memento Mori. (Memento Mori/ID Productions)
“I really do believe that Matt was a hero and his parents are heroes for not only making the decision to donate but letting us film this story,” he said.
“As they said to me, they were completely naked, completely exposed before our cameras. But Matt’s organs saved a few lives and now I hope his story will reach many more people and save many, many more lives. And that’s an act of heroism.”
Babchishin said his son was in the middle of a six-hour tattoo appointment when he went into cardiac arrest. It’s still unclear exactly what happened that led to him being taken to the University of Alberta Hospital.
That’s where Thompson had been filming for two months. He had met many families but none who were able to share the same moments in time as Babchishin and Keith.
“The film is built out of intimate portraits of people who are caught up against their will in the world of transplant medicine and, of course, the doctors and nurses who help them,” Thompson said.
“The story of Matthew is particularly important because as many documentaries that have been made about organ donation, this is the first time we’ve gotten inside the experience of a family who makes a decision to donate.
“We’ve never been at the bedside.”
Film premiere in Edmonton
The film is premiering at Metro Cinema on Thursday night, with a second screening on Sunday Nov. 13. Both screenings will be followed by a question-and-answer session. A different cut of the documentary called Vital Bonds will air Nov. 17 on CBC-TV’s The Nature of Things.
About 300,000, or eight per cent, of Albertans are registered with the Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Registry, which has been in place for almost three years.
B.C. has just over 20 per cent of the population registered after 19 years with a registry.
To be an organ or tissue donor in Alberta, you can register on the Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Registry, and mail or fax a copy of your completed donation consent form to Alberta Health.