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When death leads to life: the tale of a heart transplant | Toronto Star

By: Patrick Lagacé La Presse, Published on Tue Nov 25 2014 Toronto Star

Manon Pagé remembers that on Aug. 11, 2013, she and the older of her two children, Jean-François Savard, were eating dinner at her parents’ place. She remembers him telling her, “Mom, I have this feeling that I won’t be able to do everything I want to do with my life!”

When dinner was over, Manon and Jean-François went out to their respective cars.

“I’ll see you at home?” “Yes, mom.”

They didn’t take the same route home to Morin-Heights, northwest of Montreal. Manon got there first and put on her pyjamas.

When Jean-François didn’t show up, she felt an unease rise up inside her. This isn’t like J-F, she thought. He calls if he’s running late.

She remembered how she had heard sirens in the distance when she pulled into driveway: “I had a bad feeling.” Manon grabbed her keys and drove off to Highway 364, the route that Jean-François had taken.

In the distance, not far from the Quebec provincial police station, Manon could see the classic signs of a car accident. Emergency vehicles, flashing lights, destroyed cars. One of the cars was Jean-François’s. When he was 21, Jean-Sébastien Synnott started to get sick. Shortness of breath, chest pain. He was an athlete, one of the best in the Gaspé region, a saltwater fisherman, an outdoorsman, but now he found himself constantly exhausted. The diagnosis: cardiomyopathy, a disease that cripples the body’s ability to pump blood through the veins. Secondary effects include sleep apnea, trouble eating, and fluid in the lungs, stomach and liver. There’s a dramatic, dangerous loss of weight.

Due to complications and his deterioration, Jean-Sébastien was practically an old man by age 22 when, in January 2013, doctors at the Institute for Cardiology and Pneumology at Laval University installed a mechanical heart with a turbine in the left ventricle that pumped blood to his organs. “I was,” he recalls, “two days from death.” Yet this mechanical heart, which buzzed away inside Jean-Sébastien like an electric razor, was only a temporary fix. The permanent solution would have to be a heart transplant.

Surgeons placed Jean-Sébastien on a waiting list. The average wait time: 335 days.

Évariste Synnott remembers thinking the situation was on the brink of the absurd, the unthinkable. Here was his son, waiting for a heart that would let him keep living. But for that to happen, another person, a complete stranger, would have to die.

“You never think that your child is going to die and that you’ll have to make the decision to donate his heart,” he says. “Just like you never think that your son is going to need a heart. You’re never prepared for a situation like this, to be told that your child’s heart is finished.” Jean-Sébastien Synnott nearly died at 21 as cardiomyopathy crippled his body’s ability to pump blood. By chance, the heart of a young stranger saved his life. (GENEVIÈVE GÉLINAS/LA PRESSE) GENEVIÈVE GÉLINAS/LA PRESSE

Jean-Sébastien Synnott nearly died at 21 as cardiomyopathy crippled his body’s ability to pump blood. By chance, the heart of a young stranger saved his life. (GENEVIÈVE GÉLINAS/LA PRESSE)

At the Sacré-Coeur hospital in Montreal, the doctors did everything they could to save Jean-François Savard. But 30 hours after the car crash, they conceded he would never regain consciousness. The brain damage was too severe. Jean-François never signed a consent form to donate his organs, Manon Pagé says. But his decision was made. She remembers Jean-François had a strange passion — strange for such a young man — for donating blood. He attended blood clinics, convinced it was an amazing way to help people.

“The doctors didn’t need to talk to me,” Manon remembers. “I was one step ahead of them. I said yes.”

This son, to whom she was so close, who had such a difficult childhood and adolescence but who was so happy and so full of life, would continue to give life — in someone else’s body. If Manon had refused to donate Jean-François’ organs, his ordeal would have ended soon afterwards. He would have been unplugged and died an hour or two later, gently. In saying yes, Jean-François’ life was to be cruelly and paradoxically prolonged. He would be fed and cared for, so as to keep his organs in good condition.

“(The procedure) draws out the life,” says Manon. “Death is inevitable, but it’s kept at bay. And you’re waiting for it.” So, behind the closed doors of the new organ-testing centre at Sacré-Coeur, Manon kept a vigil for her son, waiting for his inevitable death.

It was, she recalls 15 months later, a “project” for her and the team at the centre: to keep Jean-François safe and alive so his organs would be surgically removed.

And in time Jean-François would sow the seeds of life in other people — children, fathers, mothers he would never know but who, just as he was loved, surely loved their families and were themselves loved.

Hours, then days passed. Jean-François kept breathing. It was a horrendous wait, a sort of torture suffered deeply by Manon and her daughter Béatrice, Jean-François’ kid sister. It was endured out of pure kindness, so that complete strangers could eventually be helped.

She remembers the nurses by name. Martine, Anne-Marie. She remembers the head of the centre, Dr. Pierre Marsolais, bringing croissants for her and Béatrice when he came to see Jean-François in the morning. “He even cried with us.” On Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013, four days after the accident on Highway 364, Jean-François died at age 19.

“If they’d been a tiny bit less human, I wouldn’t have held out,” Manon says of the hospital staff. “I would have wound up saying, ‘Forget it, donating organs. Unplug him.’ ” But she did hold out. Six of Jean-François’ organs, including his heart, lungs and kidneys, were harvested. He became one of 165 organ donors in Quebec in 2013.

Jean-Sébastien Synnott’s cellphone rang while he was riding in some friends’ car headed to a restaurant for dinner. It was Aug. 16, around 6 p.m., on a highway in Quebec City. At the other end of the line was the nurse responsible for Jean-Sébastien at the Institute for Cardiology and Pneumology. Jean-Sébastien remembers his amicable tone.

“How’s it going?” “Good.” “Are you ready?” “Yeah, I’m ready.” “OK. Go get your things. Come to the hospital. Take your time, there’s no hurry. Don’t eat anything.” The word heart was never uttered. But Jean-Sébastien understood what was being said.

A heart was waiting.

Manon Pagé lost her son Jean-François Savard to a car crash but agreed to allow his organs be removed for transplants. Through chance conversations and social media, she came to know of the young man who got her son’s heart. (ÉDOUARD PLANTE-FRÉCHETTE/LA PRESSE) ÉDOUARD PLANTE-FRÉCHETTE/LA PRESSE

Manon Pagé lost her son Jean-François Savard to a car crash but agreed to allow his organs be removed for transplants. Through chance conversations and social media, she came to know of the young man who got her son’s heart. (ÉDOUARD PLANTE-FRÉCHETTE/LA PRESSE)

Jean-François Savard had just died. Manon Pagé left the hospital with Béatrice. Just before leaving, someone in the know said, “The boy who’s going to get Jean-François’ heart is around the same age as him.”

Bulls—, she thought. They’re just trying to comfort me. The next day, after getting back to her place in Morin-Heights, Manon got a call from Katia Laflamme, a journalist friend based in Rimouski.

“Manon, there’s a youth from Gaspé … one waiting for a heart. He got it, he just got it. His family announced it. Manon, it’s definitely Jean-François’ heart.” Manon tells the reporter all this one sunny Saturday morning.

“So it wasn’t bulls—?” “No. It couldn’t be bulls—. Quebec is too small for that.”

The boy whom Laflamme had invoked was obviously Jean-Sébastien Synnott. The story had spread to the media as part of a fund-raising effort to help his mother Lucie Trudel and father Évariste stay with him in Quebec City during his convalescence.

On Facebook, Manon got in touch with Caroline Legresley, Jean-Sébastien’s aunt and the primary media spokesperson for the family.

It’s incredible, she wrote, but I think that I’m the mother of the boy who donated a heart to your nephew. Normally the families of a donor and the donor recipient don’t contact each other. Not in Canada, at least. Given the ethical dilemmas, the institutions that control organ donations, like Transplant Quebec, prefer to not put the families in direct contact with each other.

But Quebec is small. Everyone here is, at most, at two degrees of separation. And everyone knows how to use social media. “Sometimes things get narrowed down, with details,” says Brigitte Junius of Transplant Quebec. “It happens. But our policy is to not put families in direct contact.” Narrowing it down is exactly what the families of Jean-François and Jean-Sébastien did. Take the timing, first of all: the date when Jean-Sébastien received his transplant, so soon after Jean-François’ death. And then there’s the description given to Manon at Sacré-Coeur, a description she shared with Évariste.

“No one will ever confirm it 100 per cent,” says Katia Laflamme, the journalist. “But there are too many coincidences.”

In a Hollywood romance, the two families would fall into each other’s arms and Jean-François’ death would be given an easily digested meaning.

But life is not like Hollywood. Évariste and Jean-Sébastien Synnott would like to meet Manon Pagé. But for now the contact has been via Facebook. Évariste talks to Manon, who talks to Jean-Sébastien and everyone likes each other’s statuses and the photos they post.

“If she’s ready, I would like to meet her,” Évariste says. “It will be emotional. It’s special: Jean-Sébastien has Jean-François’ heart. My son would probably have died.”

But Manon hesitates. “I’m afraid of what my reaction will be,” she tells a reporter. “I don’t know how I’ll react.” “If it had been kidneys, Manon, would it be different?”

“Yes, it wouldn’t have the same significance. (The heart) is what keeps us alive, maybe, but it’s more, isn’t it?” She touches her heart, eyes dampening. A long moment passes in silence. She looks for the words, and finally she finds them.

“Emotions pass by. The heart is the machine, it’s the first thing you hear when your child is in your stomach. Jean-François has been dead for 15 months but his heart never stopped beating. It’s still beating. It’s magic. There are no other words.”

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