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Zoey on a horse
Zoey loved horses and enjoyed working on a farm. After her tragic passing, she gave the gift of life through organ donation.
December 23, 2020

A Christmas blessing, the gift of life – Zoey Waters’ Legacy

A year ago, the Hamilton Health Sciences trauma team took a chance that turned into the best gift – new lungs for a patient in Toronto.

Normally, if a critically ill patient and potential organ donor lives longer than three hours after the withdrawal of life sustaining therapies, their organs are no longer deemed suitable for donation. But in this case, a brand-new approach saved someone’s life.

It was a snowy day in December 2019 when tragedy struck for the Waters family. Eighteen-year-old Zoey Waters was driving to work at a farm when she was involved in a car crash. Zoey’s mom Stacy vividly recalls receiving the news from Zoey’s dad, Ryan, that their daughter had been in an accident. Her boss drove her to Hamilton from Guelph and as they pulled into the Hamilton General Hospital, her heart braced for the worst. She saw a helicopter land and her stomach sank. She just knew that her Zoey was in it.

Zoey and her mom, Stacy

Zoey and her mom, Stacy enjoying a birthday meal together.

“The hardest decision of our lives”

For the next eighteen days, Stacy and Ryan divided their time between Zoey’s bedside in the intensive care unit (ICU), the waiting room outside the ICU and the Mark Preece house, a home away from home that provides accommodation to loved ones with a family member in critical care in Hamilton. They spent most of their time praying and hoping for a miracle. As the days marched on, the chance of that miracle faded away.

“At this point, we were brought into a room with the doctors,” recalls Stacy. “They let us know that Zoey was really, really hurt. They told us that the rest of her body was healing but that they could not bring back her brain. I asked if I could I take her home and look after her. They told me that the only way she could come home is if I could hire a doctor and a nurse to be with her for 24-hour-care and eventually, she would succumb to the injuries. We had to make a decision about what we wanted to do. We had to make the one decision you never want to make as parents and the hardest decision of our lives.”

The family was heartbroken as they realized that Zoey would never return to the life she had known.

Her family and community knew Zoey was a special and spicy person full of life and energy. Her parents agreed – this would be no way for her to live.

Preparing for organ donation

Stacy recalls a representative from the Trillium Gift of Life Network who came in and showed a great deal of support and concern for their family while answering their questions. Stacy and Ryan say they felt a little bit of hope knowing that there would be a piece of Zoey left here on earth. Organ donation would give another family a gift.

“Zoey would be ecstatic that she would be able to help somebody in this way,” says Stacy.

World first in organ donation after extended timeline

Dr. Maureen Meade is a critical care physician at HHS, specializing in organ donation. She was involved with Zoey’s care.

“Organ donation can bring comfort in a circumstance of tragic loss but timing is everything,” says Meade. “Not many people know this, but after the withdrawal of life support there is a window of three hours to procure the liver, kidneys and lungs. Because of this, the organ transplant teams left the hospital one by one, as Zoey’s organs would, under normal circumstances, no longer be viable for donation.”

After life support was removed, Zoey lived for 11 hours and twenty-four minutes. And then, something happened that has never happened before.

Once Zoey’s heart stopped beating and doctors confirmed her death, a respiratory therapist put Zoey’s breathing tube back in and reattached the ventilator, and a team of ICU staff placed her face-down in the prone position to help keep her lungs open. This is a new method in organ donation, researched for years, and Zoey’s case presented a perfect opportunity to test it out along with a series of distinct methods to advance lung donation. Accordingly, Zoey’s care team contacted the lung surgeons who were on standby from Toronto.

“Over thirteen hours after withdrawing life support, Zoey’s lungs were removed for transplantation. This extended time frame was the first time in the world that this has happened,” says Meade. “The implications of such an extended donation after cardiac death are groundbreaking.”

Dr. Andrew Healey, Chief Medical Officer for Trillium Gift of Life Network, let Dr. Meade know that the lung transplant was a success and that the transplant recipient was breathing without life support in a short period of time. This was exciting news because even at the best of times the donation process can injure lungs before the transplant occurs. After six months, the recipient was at home with new lungs, and no breathing difficulty.

Zoey’s legacy

Zoey was an only child who loved her family and friends. Her parents say she was not afraid to stand up for the things she believed in. She loved animals and her days spent working with horses at a farm. Zoey’s accident was a tragedy and comes with immeasurable pain for her family and friends. A year later, Stacy says the grief hurts as much as it did in those early days, but knowing that Zoey was able to help someone else provides comfort in the darkest times.

“Zoey would be proud to help someone in the way she did with the precious gift of organ donation,” says Stacy.

For more information on organ donation or the Trillium Gift of Life Network, visit www.giftoflife.on.ca