When Sarah Jha (Galvanizing) met two new coworkers during her first days at ArcelorMittal Dofasco, she could have never imagined how much they would change her life.
In 2005, Sarah had just graduated from McMaster University with a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and she started a job in Steelmaking. Ian Reid and Vikas Jha gave her a tour of the facility. Six years later, Vikas and Sarah were married and in 2014, their daughter Mila was born.
But when pregnant with Mila, Sarah was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a liver disease in which the bile ducts (small tubes through which bile flows from the liver to the gallbladder and intestines) get progressively smaller due to inflammation and scarring. As a result, bile that is normally carried out of the liver accumulates within the liver, damaging the liver cells. Though she had no symptoms, her bloodwork was abnormal and a liver biopsy and MRI confirmed the diagnosis.
When Sarah went back to work after maternity leave in June 2015 (she had moved to Galvanizing in 2013), she was still symptom-free. But by December, this changed. She had discolouration of the skin and extreme fatigue, as well as ascites, which is where fluid builds up in the stomach. When blood vessels burst in her neck and esophagus, Sarah had three blood transfusions and was in the hospital for a week.
“I was so tired all of the time. I could have fallen asleep sitting up in broad daylight. I hated not being able to do stuff with my daughter. She was so active. But she was so kind. She would say, ‘Mama, you can walk and I will run,'” said Sarah, now 38.
There is no cure for PSC or for the liver damage it causes, with treatment focusing on managing its complications. In October 2017, Sarah was put on the liver transplant list.
“I received such amazing support. My friends even held an event to raise awareness of liver disease and transplant. Some people applied to find out if they could be donors. But I didn’t get my hopes up,” Sarah said. “I knew there was a high probability of it not working out.”
Ian, who had become good friends with the Jhas, was one of the people going through the comprehensive screening process at University Health Network in Toronto to see if he could donate part of his liver to Sarah. After three months of paperwork, health tests and meetings with nurses and surgeons, as well as a social worker, he found out he was a match.
“I knew she was having trouble finding a donor and her condition was worsening. It was becoming more important to have that transplant,” said Ian (Central Trades and Services). “I thought I would feel terrible if the worst happened and I could have helped and didn’t. I at least wanted to see if I was a match and then see if it was right for me and my family.
“When I found out I was a match, I was excited. Knowing Vik and Sarah and being able to relate to where they are in their life, being able to give that gift of life and quality of life, I couldn’t think of anything more rewarding to be able to do this for two good friends.”
On Nov. 5, 2018 at Toronto General Hospital, Sarah received about 70 per cent of Ian’s liver in a successful, seven-hour transplant surgery.
After surgery, Sarah contracted pneumonia and had partial kidney failure. She remained in hospital for three weeks. Today she is on medical leave from Dofasco and doctors say she is progressing well. She is free of her symptoms–no more fluid buildup or extreme fatigue.
“It is amazing. My four year old daughter even notices. Now she says ‘Dada, Mama jogged with me.’
“I am really lucky. And Dofasco has supported me with long-term disability and everyone there supported my husband when I was going through surgery and Ian when he was going through surgery.”
Sarah is especially thankful to Ian.
“He had to change his lifestyle and do so much to make sure he was ready. It’s just amazing what someone did to help me. I am just so grateful to him,” she said.
After the surgery, Ian spent six days in the hospital and recovered at home for six weeks. At three months, he had an MRI to see how much of his liver had grown back. In three to six months, the liver regenerates to 90 to 100 per cent of its pre-donation size. After one year, Ian’s bloodwork will be checked to ensure liver function, which will continue annually for 10 years. He says everything is going well.
“My family has been so supportive. I give so much credit to my family, especially my wife Carolyn, daughter Tobin and son Rowan, and how they have supported me. And to Dofasco. There is even part of the company policy that allows for organ donation leaves. I had the support of the company, my manager and my colleagues. That was a significant enabler for me, to have the financial and emotional support through the whole process. Not many companies would be as supportive of an employee going through that.”
“I kind of kept it quiet when I was going through screening and the surgery,” Ian said. “But now it’s important to tell my story about donation, to make sure people are considering being a donor. I would encourage people to consider it and go to the beadonor.ca website and discuss it with your family. Make sure it is in your will so that you are able to help others.”