Katie Welsh and son Charlie at their Panorama-area home. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

‘Lucky’ Surrey mom reflects on life as Canada’s first pediatric heart transplant recipient

Katie Welsh was given the gift of a second donated heart last year

Like 501 other British Columbians, Katie Welsh’s life was saved by the gift of an organ donation last year.

It was the second time this Surrey mom received a new heart.

“There are still lots of people who die waiting for organs, so I’m one of the lucky ones – and I’ve been lucky twice,” Welsh said as she sat at a table in the Panorama-area townhouse she shares with her husband, Matt, and son, Charlie.

Welsh, who at age seven was Canada’s first pediatric heart transplant recipient, had a second heart-replacement surgery a year ago this week.

The heart she was born with developed viral cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle.

“I was misdiagnosed for quite a while,” recalled Welsh, who lived in Richmond at the time. “My mom had taken me to emergency more than a few times, and they didn’t realize that it was my heart, and then when they finally did give me the diagnosis, they told my parents that there was nothing they could do for me.”

Back then, heart transplants weren’t performed in B.C., so Welsh was transported to a hospital in Pittsburgh for surgery in 1987.

The groundbreaking procedure gave Welsh a relatively normal life, and her new heart would go on to last close to 30 years.

For a transplanted organ, that’s an extraordinary length of time, Welsh was told.

“Transplanted hearts usually last around 20 years,” she said. “I would say it was about the 27- or 28-year mark that my heart started to go into heart failure. And that’s when they knew that I would need to have the surgery done again, to save my life.”

On Jan. 31, BC Transplant announced that 502 lives were saved in 2018 by the gift of organ donation – a new B.C. record for total number of transplants in a calendar year.

With 122 deceased donors in 2018, B.C. exceeded by one its record pace of 2017, the organization said in a news release. “This translates into a deceased donor rate of 24.9 per million people, an increase of 71 per cent compared to five years ago.”

Broken down by organ, 28 hearts, 50 lungs and 77 livers were transplanted. There were also a record 338 kidney transplants, with 100 of those coming from living donors.

• READ MORE: Organ donation saves record 502 lives last year in B.C.

Welsh said she wants to tell her story to encourage people to become an organ donor.

“You know, I don’t love being in the paper or having this published or having my photo taken, but I feel like it’s my responsibility to share my story to encourage others to sign up to be organ donors, because if I can save one person’s life, this is all worth it,” she said.

“You know,” she continued, “even the surrogacy story, it’s people doing something kind for others with nothing in return, and I think that’s what kind of makes the world go ‘round. I want people to hear the story and feel inspired to give to others.”

Her story of surrogacy involves the birth of Charlie six years ago.

Because of her original heart transplant and all the medications she was taking, Welsh and her husband were told it’d be risky for her to give birth. But they wanted a family, even if just a small one.

“We explored lots of options and had lots of heartbreaking appointments,” Welsh said, “and it wasn’t until my girlfriend, a co-worker of mine, stepped up and said, ‘You know, if you want me to carry your baby for you, I will gladly do that for you.’”

One thing led to another, and Charlie was born.

“It seemed like it was so out of reach for us,” said Welsh, who was employed as a dental assistant at the time.

“My friend, she’s a dental hygienist, and we worked in the same office together, and I think through her seeing my heartbreak of coming back from appointments, it was when she realized that she could step up and help.”

Years earlier, the first heart Welsh received was from a boy in South Carolina who died after hitting his head on the bottom of a pool, she said.

As for her new heart, Welsh doesn’t yet know who the donor was, but she’s eager to know.

BC Transplant has a program that unites donors with recipients, if both parties agree.

“I have no information – it remains anonymous,” she said. “I don’t know who this person is or their family or anything about them. But I’d love to know.”

Today, after six months of recovery from her second heart-transplant operation, Welsh said she’s feeling good again.

“I was still pretty sick afterwards, until last summer,” she explained. “There’s lots of ups and downs, lots of medications, lots of adjusting to your new organ, and it’s a major surgery, right?

“We got back to doing things that we had missed – going to the water park and going to the water slides and the beach and just really enjoying life, right, because for so long mommy was sick.

“He,” Welsh said, looking at her son, “was pretty happy to have me back.”

Welsh said she’s quite happy to stop at two heart transplants, and not have to endure a third.

“It’s a lot to go through – it’s grueling and it’s painful. I’m just hopeful for the future,” she said. “I really am, now that I have this new heart. Even a year ago I didn’t know what even this year would bring, and now that I’m on the mend, I’m really hopeful. I’m glad to be watching Charlie grow and spending more time with my family and going on trips and enjoying all that life has to offer.”



tom.zillich@surreynowleader.com

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