A White Rock family is sharing the story behind their patriarch’s double-lung transplant in order to encourage more people to sign off on being an organ donor.
When Rick Saunders was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis 12 years ago, the longtime White Rock resident – and former owner of the now-demolished White Rock Muffler Shop – had no idea he would undergo surgery to replace both his lungs.
After 10 years of coping, Saunders noticed a sharp decline in his health, resulting in constant visits to Peace Arch Hospital, where his daughter, Liz Paynter, works as a nurse.
“His lungs collapsed twice in November, then in December he had two lung infections,” Paynter recalled. “In February, his lung collapsed again. He was out for a day-and-a-half, and his lung collapsed again.”
It became clear a transplant would be needed.
On March 4, the 65-year-old grandfather – who has never smoked a day in his life – was transferred to Vancouver General Hospital to await surgery to replace his left lung.
The wait grew into five weeks once the family realized B.C.’s only lung-transplant surgeon, Dr. John Yee, would be away in Africa to operate on children who needed care.
“If lungs did become available that were suitable for my dad, they would go out of province to a hospital where a lung-transplant surgeon was available to perform this life-saving surgery,” Paynter said. “My dad was so ill at this time that I questioned whether or not he would survive.”
Two weeks after Yee returned to Vancouver, Saunders was set for the operating table when he received another surprise – both his lungs would be replaced.
“We didn’t know until the night they did it,” Saunders said.
“My left lung had completely deteriorated and they had to remove that one for sure and the other one they probably felt wasn’t far behind.”
The successful surgery was completed in mid-April, with Saunders getting back to life in the weeks after.
“I still can’t believe it sometimes,” he said.
Now, with Saunders’ health back in check, the family is turning their focus to speaking out and helping others who face the same situation.
Vancouver Coastal Health has yet to hire another lung-transplant surgeon, which puts too much pressure on Yee, Paynter said.
“The lung-transplantation program cannot continue to ride on the shoulders of one man,” she said. “God forbid Dr. Yee became ill, injured or even worse. For many BC residents waiting for lung transplantation, this could literally mean death.
“Dr. Yee should be able to live a normal life and go on vacation with his family or take a day off without feeling like he has abandoned his patients.”
Vancouver Coastal Health senior media relations officer Anna Marie D’Angelo confirmed the search continues for another lung-transplant surgeon but noted Yee is not the only doctor who can perform the surgeries.
“He’s the main one. There are other people who (could perform the surgery) but he’s the main person,” she said. “We’re recruiting for more, but it’s a real tough speciality to fill.”
(NOTE: Thursday, after this article was published, D’Angelo emailed Peace Arch News to clarify: “Up until recently Vancouver Coastal Health had three surgeons who did lung transplants. We had two of those surgeons unexpectedly leave the lung transplant program at the same time. We are currently recruiting for two more surgeons, and have had several highly qualified applicants. We are hopeful to fill those positions soon.”)
D’Angelo added that Vancouver Coastal Health has completed double the number of transplants this year compared to last.
On Sept. 30, the entire Saunders family – including Paynter’s brother, husband and children – will be on hand at Peace Arch Hospital to show passersby the result of someone’s decision to donate their organs.
“We are hoping to spread awareness around organ donation, because there are so many things people don’t know,” Paynter said. “Some people think they already are a donor because they signed up with their driver’s licence, but they’re not.”
In order to be a donor, a registration must be completed on the BC Transplant website (www.transplant.bc.ca), she said, noting that people of all ages should register.
“The slogan for BC Transplant is ‘Live life. Pass it on’ and it’s such a beautiful thing to do, to give the gift of life,” she said.
For more information, visit www.transplant.bc.ca