Local transplant recipient organizes Organ Donor Registry drive 

One year ago today, long-time local John "Chalky" Chalk was a very sick man.

In one short summer month his skin had developed a frightening yellow tinge, he was weak, disoriented and becoming more and more incoherent. For no apparent reason, this otherwise young, healthy and active man was suffering from acute liver failure and was in desperate need of a liver transplant.

Today he’s sitting at Tapley’s bar, relaxed and happy, with a whole new outlook on life.

Inside his body, a stranger’s liver is doing all the work that his own liver could no longer do. He doesn’t know where it came from or whose liver it is and when asked what that feels like, Chalk paused, took a sip of his coke and simply said: "I think the person that was the organ donor was the kindest person in the whole world and I’m forever grateful."

Now Chalk wants to give a little something back. This weekend, marking the one-year anniversary of his transplant operation in Vancouver General Hospital, Chalk is holding an Organ Donor Registry drive in the village. In addition to getting more people on the list, he wants to raise awareness and instigate family discussions about organ donation.

"A lot of people went out of their way for me," he said, citing the B.C. Transplant Society, his local doctor, his Vancouver surgeon, the ambulance team, Whistler locals and his friends and family.

"It’s the least I can do."

According to Chalk, the statistics show about 85 per cent of the population supports the idea of organ donation. But in Whistler there are only 1,389 people on the Organ Donor Registry or about 12 per cent of the full-time population. Many people registered after Chalk’s experience because it hit so close to home.

The form only takes a few minutes to fill out and people can choose which organs they feel comfortable donating.

In the meantime, many people waiting for transplants are dying because there is a chronic shortage of hearts, lungs, kidneys and livers for transplant in B.C.

Currently there are more than 460 British Columbians waiting for a solid organ transplant and another 450 are waiting for a cornea transplant.

Chalk knows that he was one of the lucky ones. Doctors were able to find a healthy liver matching his blood type and size just in time. He was told after the four and a half hour surgery that there wasn’t a living cell left in his liver by the time it was removed and he only had a few more hours left to live. To this day, it’s still a challenge to come to grips with what has happened to him over the past year.

"I don’t think anybody realizes what exactly this entails," he said.

"It’s a whole life re-evaluation. My friends will always be my friends but my values and goals have changed drastically."

Living in Whistler since 1990 and doing a host of jobs, from bartending to working for Heli-jet, Chalk said it was once important to make a million dollars.

"I stop and smell the roses now," he said, talking fondly of his hikes to local haunts like Joffre and Rainbow Lakes in the past year.

"I laugh a lot more now.

"My suggestion is enjoy life while you’ve got it. It’s very fragile."

The Organ Donor Registry was created in 1997. Since then 465,000 British Columbians have signed up on the list. The registry is the only way to donate organs now, wiping out the old system of a decal on your driver’s license.

There is no age limit to becoming a donor and the registry does not preclude anyone with a medical illness.

Chalk realizes that not everyone will be comfortable signing up to donate their organs. The most important thing to do however is to talk over the options with your family and loved ones. He admits it’s a hard topic to broach.

"It deals with death and people don’t deal with death well," he said matter-of-factly.

"Unfortunately it’s a decision you can’t make afterwards."

Most people think they’re invincible, he said. Chalk once thought so too. He never in his wildest dreams imagined that he would one day be the recipient of an organ donation.

He still doesn’t know why his liver failed. Instead of dwelling on the unknowns, he’s focusing on the present and getting better.

He said: "You almost have to pinch yourself and wonder ‘did this really happen to me?’"

The Organ Donor Registry drive will take place on Sunday, Aug. 3 and Monday, Aug. 4 in the Town Plaza Gazebo, opposite The Gap. The information booth will be set up from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. each day. For more information and to register online visit www.transplant.bc.ca. You will need your B.C. Health Care number to sign up.

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