Kai Bye-Jensen celebrates his birthday on Dec. 25, despite it not actually being his true birthday.
It was on Christmas Day 17 years ago that he received the ultimate gift: a heart transplant that changed his life.
“I got the heart transplant Christmas morning in 1995,” said the 73-year-old. “It is my birthday, Christmas morning. It is really amazing.”
On Wednesday, he was amongst several organ recipients at Penticton General Hospital celebrating the holiday season by thanking hospital staff who make organ donation possible. Known as the B.C. Transplant’s Operation Popcorn team, they walked the halls delivering decorative tins of popcorn to the physicians and staff in the Intensive Care Unit.
Bye-Jensen was living in Coquitlam when he got sick from an enlarged heart. He was lucky and was on the waiting list for just seven weeks before he was admitted into Vancouver General Hospital for the transplant.
“I remember going past the hotel on the way down and was wondering if I would ever see that again, but 10 days later I was home. It was very successful,” said Bye-Jensen, who has lived in Osoyoos the past eight years.
He went from having to stop halfway up a flight of stairs because he couldn’t breathe, to walking his dog everyday and then skiing two-and-a-half months after the surgery.
“When I got the heart transplant I still had muscles in my legs so I was ready to go … I did the 10 kilometre Sun Run three-and-a-half months later,” he said. “It was awesome. I was like a little boy in a candy shop I was so excited.”
The good-humoured man has since donated much of his time back to raising awareness about the importance of donating organs. Apparent from the bright red shirt he was wearing on this day that had a rough sketch of lungs, a heart and a kidney with the words “Don’t let reusable items go to waste” written above it.
Bye-Jensen said typically recipients don’t learn anything about who donated the organs to them, but he found out his came from a person in Alberta. He said he had heard about a traffic accident that happened in the neighbouring province and at the time the organs all went through Vancouver.
Operation Popcorn has happened throughout B.C. hospitals for many years. Health care professionals often see the tragic side of organ donation as they support families dealing with the loss of a loved one. A visit from the Operation Popcorn team allows the staff to see the people whose lives are saved through organ donation. For Bye-Jensen the popcorn has a significant meaning.
“When your lying in a hospital bed at night, you always smell the popcorn. The nurses making popcorn at night,” Bye-Jensen chuckled. “All I got for Christmas dinner in 1995 was ice chips and not very many.”
The heart transplant recipient said even 17 years later he is still so appreciative of the donation of the gift of life he received.
“What can I say? If I could donate kidneys or something to anybody I would be delighted to do it.”
Today there are about 450 people in B.C. waiting for a life-saving transplant. Last year eight British Columbians died while on the wait list while almost 300 lives were saved. As of September 2012, 849,552 people in the province had registered their intention to donate.
B.C. Transplant encourages all Canadians to identify themselves as organ donors on their Facebook Timeline. Located under the “Health and Wellness” in your Facebook Timeline’s “Life Event” tab, it allows people to both post their organ donor status and register to donate if they haven’t already.
To register as a donor visit www.transplant.bc.ca.