Deacon gives nun the gift of life

  • June 19, 2009

TORONTO - You never know what you’ll spot in the parish bulletin. One Sunday last summer Deacon Michael Hayes read a plea from a woman seeking a liver donor to save her critically ill sister. He put down the bulletin, booted up his computer and sent an e-mail to his pastor.

He wrote a simple message: “I have a Catholic liver and anybody is welcome to it.”

Thus began an incredible journey in which Hayes volunteered to have 70 per cent of his liver removed and transplanted into a stranger who turned out to be a Toronto nun. The deacon saved the nun and in the process became a walking example of Christian stewardship and an unwitting spokesman for an important cause.

The story began in South Africa in 1997, seven years before Hayes was ordained, when Sr. Bridget Nazareth was diagnosed with primary billiary cirrhosis and told she would need a liver transplant within eight years. She was 43. Eight years came and went and, although Sr. Bridget’s condition worsened, she continued to work as a chaplain and in 2006 became manager of chaplaincy for the archdiocese of Toronto. But by February 2008 her liver was in full revolt, the pain was excruciating, and, needing constant care, she was finally placed on the liver transplant list.

She joined 325 other people on the list and was introduced to the sad reality that, due to  an insufficient number of donors, someone in Ontario dies every three days awaiting an organ transplant. But unlike such primary organs as kidneys, hearts and lungs, a liver can regenerate, which opens the possibility of live donors. Sr. Bridget was advised to seek a live donor among family and friends, but for various physical and compatibility reasons none was found.

“It seemed hopeless, really,” she said. “When you first get on the list you say to yourself, ‘Oh, good, I’m finally on the list.’ But then they tell you to try to find your own donor.”

By the summer of 2008 her condition was critical. As Sr. Bridget puts it, she had become so sick she wasn’t even able to pray. It was then that permission was granted to seek a donor through parish bulletins. No one knew what to expect. Would people respond to a request to donate a large portion of a vital organ, to undergo a serious operation, in order to save the life of a stranger?

To the amazement and eternal gratitude of Sr. Bridget, who would have been thankful for just one  volunteer, seven stepped forward. “God showed me the generosity of people,” she said. Hayes was the first to contact her, or, as he put it, “I beat the others to the punch.”

“I remember that I saw the notice in the bulletin and I said to myself, ‘I want to do this. I should do this.’ I thought it was the right thing to do,” he said.

At the time, the deacon had no idea that he’d be saving a nun. He smiles now recalling the moment he found out. “I thought that was very interesting,” he said. “I mean, what are the odds? A deacon and a nun.”

Hayes, who serves both St. Patrick’s parish in Markham and Good Shepherd parish in Thornhill, is a four-time marathoner who still runs regularly. The cutoff age for live liver donors is 60; Hayes beat the deadline by four months. Humility told him he should remain silent about the gift of life he bestowed on a stranger, but he was persuaded by St. Patrick’s pastor Fr. Michael Machacek and others to share his story to promote the need for live donors.

“I would have kept it a secret,” he said. “But I’m OK with this.”

Prospective donors usually undergo a three-month, intensive process of physical and emotional screening to assess their suitability for surgery. But due to Sr. Bridget’s critical condition Hayes’ assessment was condensed into three weeks under the direction of Cailin MacLeod, RN, at Toronto General Hospital. Typically, just one in four volunteers is a suitable donor. The first test is a simple blood screen and it showed Hayes was a perfect match. Other tests confirmed his compatibility. He was apprised of the risks and given data showing an infinitesimal fatality rate — a fraction of one per cent — for live liver donors.

“I was happy to be a match,” Hayes said. “Sure, I had some apprehension, but the biggest thing I was nervous about was that the recipient might die before all the tests were complete.”

Hayes had the full support of his wife, Dawn, and their two daughters.

“He’s always been the type to just jump in,” said Dawn, who has also signed on to become a live donor. “I was nervous and proud . . . and I checked the life insurance,” she joked.

Days before the surgery, though, Hayes would have a brief rebellion against doctors’ advise. He was at the hospital when he heard that Sr. Bridget was having a particularly difficult day. Donors and recipients are generally prohibited from meeting. “I just went and saw her even though I wasn’t supposed to,” he said. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”

They prayed together for a few minutes and it lifted the spirits of Sr. Bridget. “I was happy to be able to meet him,” she said. “He assured me everything would be all right and that if we relied on prayer things would be OK.”

Twenty-two days after the notice in the Sunday bulletin, Hayes was on the operating table at Toronto General Hospital. Among the last words he heard before going under were from a doctor giving him a last chance to back out, “There was not one moment where I wanted to change my mind,” he said. His surgery lasted five hours; Sr. Bridget’s a bit longer. Both operations went smoothly.

But Hayes was back in surgery a few days later for a repair and spent a short time in intensive care, but otherwise he says his convalescence has been easier than he thought. He was off work for five weeks. After five weeks a liver will regenerate to 90 per cent of its original capacity and should be at 100 per cent in 12 weeks.

Sr. Bridget’s convalescence has been more difficult. She is still being watched closely for infections and requires draining tubes to assist the natural functions of the liver. But her sense of humour remains strong. “Everyone says that Jesus is your constant companion,” she smiles, “but for me my constant companion is my tubes and medication.”

The deacon and the nun have become good friends. “We talk every week like we’re old buddies,” said Hayes.

“I marvel at what he did for me,” said Sr. Bridget. And at Hayes’ 60th birthday party earlier this year they shared the spotlight.

“They wished me happy birthday, too,” said Sr. Bridget, smiling, setting up the punch line, “because I have his liver. I owe him my life.”

To become a living donor, visit: .

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