As cool as it was hanging out with Céline Dion, visiting David Foster at his Malibu mansion and trading childhood wisecracks with the late Ed McMahon, Jamie Cormier’s life today isn’t nearly as glamorous.
And that’s just how one of Victoria’s most famous transplant recipients likes it. Cormier, 27, says he’s just happy — and grateful — to be alive.
Diagnosed with liver disease soon after being born, he was once a poster boy of sorts for the David Foster Foundation, which provides financial and emotional support to families of children who need organ transplants.
Twenty-six years after receiving a liver transplant at 10 months old, Cormier is living proof a transplant recipient can overcome challenging obstacles and lead a productive life.
After “being in a shell for most of my life,” the optimistic survivor who works part-time as a London Drugs cashier says he’s happy to be out of the spotlight and into a world of normalcy with a sense of purpose.
Looking back, he says it’s shocking to see how much attention he received growing up. But it’s no wonder. As McMahon once observed, Cormier’s quick wit and confidence in the spotlight made him seem at home there.
“You give that boy a mike and he’s very comfortable,” Johnny Carson’s longtime sidekick remarked during a foundation fundraising event in the summer of 2002, when Jamie was 14.
“You have to have that spirit to survive, and Jamie’s really got it,” says Lynne Mozley, who worked with the David Foster Softball Society since its inception in 1986 and was the foundation’s executive director from 1994 until 2009.
Cormier’s father was in the Canadian Armed Forces and the family had been transferred to Trenton, Ont., from Victoria a few months before Jamie was born.
He was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a liver disease, two months after he was born. In February of 1989, four months after unsuccessfully undergoing the Kasai procedure, an interim operation that could potentially have created a new pathway for bile flow using part of his intestine, Cormier underwent many more tests and additional surgery before it was determined he would need a liver transplant.
By that summer, a liver became available in Newfoundland, but it was too large for his body, recalled his mother, Kathy Cormier, who raised Jamie and older sister Kara as a single parent since they were three and five, respectively.
Kathy remembers being “devastated and scared” in 1989, fearing another organ wouldn’t be available in time to save her son after the Newfoundland false alarm, but another donor was found a week later.
Jamie’s 16-hour transplant operation was done by surgeon Dr. Ricardo Superina, whom Kathy describes as “a god to me” and his team at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, including nursing specialist Nancy Graham whose “hugs and extra knowledge” soothed Kathy when she needed it most.
It was followed by more surgery arising from complications, including a blood clot on the side of the liver. Cormier also had a serious lung infection cured by an experimental drug Superina suggested.
With support from the foundation, Kathy, whom Cormier describes as “my bedrock,” the family returned in 1992 to Victoria. After her husband moved back to Nova Scotia, she began raising her children on her own in Esquimalt and Tillicum before moving to a home in Victoria she still shares with her son.
It was all part of a journey that would see Cormier spend much of his young life in and out of hospitals, although less often as his health improved.
Still, there are times when the family gets a jolting reminder of what is at stake. That was the case five years ago, when “we almost thought we were going to lose him,” says Kathy, 65.
“It gets tougher as I get older, and once you reach adulthood, you’re on your own,” says Kathy, whose son had to see a specialist when his bile duct became dangerously blocked, necessitating a drainage bag.
“By the grace of God, it worked,” she says, referring to how a stent inserted into his bile duct had successfully “tricked it into opening up” by the time it was removed a year later.
Indeed, Kathy’s faith has been tested time and again.
It brought back the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy espoused by her late mother, who also told her God never gives you anything you can’t handle.
“He must think I can handle quite a load,” Kathy says with a laugh. “Even the nurses, when Jamie was young, said: ‘He is here for a special reason.’ ”
During her years with the foundation, Mozley, pager at the ready, became acutely aware of how the Cormier family “had such a rough go of it,” prompting the foundation to assist with the purchase of groceries and medication they couldn’t afford, and trips to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Since they never knew whether their stay would be for days, weeks or months, Kathy had no choice but to go on social assistance.
“I could never book a return trip for them, and she had to take Kara with them,” says Mozley, noting the survival rate in the late 1980s for such procedures was only 30 per cent.
“It’s what we would do for every transplant family back then. When they go away, they have to maintain two households.”
Mozley bristles at memories of how Kathy, who had been a provincial-government employee during the Bill Vander Zalm era, would be “given the worst time possible” by B.C. Ministry of Human Resources staff.
“They were terrible to her, and she was emotionally fragile to begin with. Her cheque was always late,” says Mozley, now a director of Richmond-based Children’s Organ Transplant Society.
“Kathy is very smart and meticulous, and kept a looseleaf binder with every date, time, every drug he was given. She had everything documented,” she recalls.
The Cormiers say they will be forever grateful to the David Foster Foundation, adding that Mozley, their “angel of mercy,” will always have a special place in their hearts.
“Lynne saved me from so many situations,” says Kathy, recalling how ministry staff “would accuse me of being on holiday” when she had to fly to Toronto with her son on a moment’s notice.
Although she realized skeptical staffers “have a boss, and they’re just doing their job,” she’ll never forget the day when one clerk gave her such a hard time that she snapped.
“I looked at him and said: ‘You know what? I used to stand on the other side of this desk, and I’ve had enough of your questions,’ and I walked out.”
Kathy, who works part-time at the Salvation Army in Langford, says Jamie’s transplant journey was particularly difficult for Kara, whom family friends would care for while her mother took Jamie for treatments.
“She was too young to understand what was happening,” recalls Kathy, whose daughter is now 30 and works as concierge at the Strathcona Hotel where, she notes, Foster got his start.
“No matter how hard you try to make things normal, you can’t. That’s why Lynne was so amazing, keeping us together all the time.”
Kara has been affected her whole life by the impact of her brother’s health challenges and to this day hates having to go to hospitals, Kathy said.
While Cormier still has health problems, including exhaustion and bouts of chronic pain, and must take medication, including anti-rejection drugs, he says he feels blessed.
He has seen other organ recipients who haven’t survived, which only increases the resolve of the young man Mozley, 68, calls “a very kind and caring person who loves everybody” to help others.
“I’m so fortunate I have such great help,” he says, crediting family and friends and “my amazing doctors” — Dr. Neil Crofton, his family physician, and gastroenterologist Dr. Andrew Singh.
“Having a transplant for 26 years, you are thankful, but you also know you are never out of the woods,” he says matter-of-factly.
He says he’s grateful to his bosses at the downtown London Drugs, where he has worked for two years, for their willingness to accommodate his illness.
“One of the frustrations is I do want to work full-time, and do more, but my body doesn’t always let me,” he says, admitting he sometimes feels “I’m not pulling my own weight” working shorter shifts.
His feeling was carried over from a job he held for six years at another local business, where a new manager was less understanding about his health challenges.
“I knew that whoever would understand, that would be the one I would want to work for,” he says, grateful the London Drugs manager who hired him had reassured him it was with the understanding he had health issues they would take into consideration.
Despite his medical roadblocks, Cormier, who shares his mother’s sense of humour, isn’t into self-pity, especially when he thinks about his anonymous two-year-old organ donor.
“Someone gave up their life to allow me to live mine,” says Cormier, who admits he would love to meet and thank the donor’s family.
“I can’t even imagine what it felt like losing a child,” he says. “It would be hard for them for me to bring it up, but I’d feel very completed to meet and thank them, but I don’t want to step on their toes.”
Today, Cormier is on a mission to encourage organ donation and raise funds to assist adult recipients through his own foundation, TUF (Transplant United Foundation).
“Once you turn 18, it doesn’t stop,” he says. “You have lifelong hospital visits, and they have enough to deal with and don’t need to deal with financial stress, as well.”
His advice to others is to cherish your life and live it to the fullest, do what you can to help others and remember that it’s never too late to donate.
“It’s very important that people know organ donation does save lives, especially these days. I got mine in the 1980s when this was still new, and I’m still here by the grace of God.”
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