On July 14, 2011, Harvey Nelson’s phone rang.
Nelson could hardly believe it when he picked up the receiver and saw the words flashing on the caller ID.
“It just blew me away,” he says.
Barely able to walk more than a few steps, attached to a 100-foot oxygen hose, Nelson finished his phone call and made his way to the door of his rural home. His wife, Maureen, was outside in the yard. In tears, Nelson shared the news.
“Mo,” he hollered, “we got the call.”
Nelson says he still gets “the tingles” thinking about the day University of Alberta hospital transplant team phoned to say they had a pair of lungs for him. Nelson, now 68, had been living with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that causes scarring of lung tissue, since 2009. The day he went in for his double lung transplant, the formerly robust man was hooked up to oxygen 24/7, his weight down to 105 pounds.
On the way in to the hospital from his acreage near Fort Saskatchewan, Nelson asked his wife to drive him out to the barn. In case “something went sideways,” he wanted a moment to say goodbye to a friend of his -- his stallion, Pride, one of three horses left of the 25-strong herd he had been forced to sell after his illness left him unable to care for the animals.
"She drove out by the fence and old Pride came up to the fence and I looked at him,” Nelson says. “I told him, ‘I got the call.’”
From horseback to wheelchair
At the time his symptoms started, Nelson had been working as an operations manager for an oil well company, spending his free hours training and riding the horses on his 30-acre property. After his diagnosis, he became dependent on his wife to look after him, to push him in his wheelchair whenever he needed to go somewhere.
“I was a very active person. And it's unbelievable how you feel and how useless you feel just having to sit in a chair and do nothing but look out the window and watch TV.”
Medication and other treatments failed to stop the progression of Nelson’s disease. He qualified for the transplant list in spring 2011 after passing a medical “boot camp” at the University of Alberta hospital, one of five sites in Canada that perform lung transplants.
About 36 hours after the phone call that changed everything, after giving his wife a kiss goodbye, Nelson had surgery to receive his new lungs.
"I could breathe"
After the operation, although still extremely frail, Nelson finally had relief from his symptoms.
“When I woke up, it was unbelievable. I could breathe,” he says. “You go from looking at your deathbed to 'hey, this is going to really happen. We are going to make it.'”
Following the transplant, Nelson spent 22 days in the ICU and a couple months more in the hospital. Maureen was there nearly every day, driving in from the couple’s acreage, helping him get through the physical and emotional ups and downs of the recuperation process.
“I really don't believe that I would have made it through everything without my wife,” Nelson says.
Nearly seven years later, Nelson is back to living an active life. He goes for checkups every six months, takes medication and uses a spirometer to check his lung function every morning. He is able to care for his five horses, Skeeter, Rex, Rusty, Goose and Gander, and will be spending a few weeks this summer riding in the mountains.
Nelson doesn’t know anything about his anonymous donor. He gave his doctors a letter to pass along to the donor’s family, doing his best to capture in words what it meant to find an escape from the disease that would have killed him.
“I just told them how grateful I was to have the opportunity to have the second chance at life, and to guarantee that family that I would do everything in my power to look after these lungs to the best of my ability,” he says.
Raising funds for second chances
In 2012, Nelson and four other transplant recipients started looking for ways to spread the word about tissue and organ donation, and to support others going through the transplant process. They organized the first 2nd Chance Trail Ride, a fundraiser now held every May in partnership with the GoodHearts Foundation, another transplant group.
This year the ride happens on May 12, with people taking to horses and wagons along the Iron Horse Trail from Lindbergh to Elk Point, then winding their day down with a supper, dance and silent auction. Last year’s ride raised $70,000, with funds going to support transplant recipients and their families by providing them gift cards, gas cards, and subsidized apartments near the hospital. The fundraiser also helps pay for a sign campaign aimed at encouraging people to sign their donor cards and talk to their families about their wishes.
Nelson spent April visiting registries throughout northern Alberta, talking to people about the fundraiser and organ and tissue donation.
“If there’s any possible way, sign your donor card,” he says. “I don’t think people really, really understand the emotional feeling that we get when we do receive our organs. It really is, it is a second chance.”
In 2014, the Alberta government launched an online organ and tissue donation registry. More information about organ donation is available at MyHealth.Alberta.ca.