Grateful from the bottom of his heart

He should be dead, but instead he's out enjoying sports

Maurice Parobec says he should be dead.

The 56-year-old Kamloops resident inherited a condition that killed his father and his father's brothers at a young age, and threatens two of his own brothers to this day.

Instead, he's playing half a dozen sports on any given day and competing in national athletic competitions.

He owes his life to another person's heart - figuratively and literally. Parobec lives because someone had enough foresight and compassion to put his or her name on a donor list. This person's most vital organ beats inside Parobec's chest and boy, is he making the most of it.

"I can't believe that that can happen," says Parobec. "It's just a gift."

His daughter, who lives in Kamloops with her two children, feels the same way while always remembering someone had to die to allow her father to live.

"How do you thank the family for being able to have the wherewithal? How do you thank the donor for knowing ahead of time, should this ever happen to me give my organs away to someone who might need them?" she said.

Five years later, that deep gratitude leads father and daughter to promote organ donation every chance they get.

Samantha raises awareness through her CFBX radio show. And Maurice is travelling to the birthplace of heart transplant surgery, South Africa, to take part in the World Transplant Games in July.

The country has been on the cutting edge of the procedure since the world's first successful heart transplant was performed there in 1967 by Dr. Christiaan Barnard.

"It's just showing them that hey, look at me," he said. "I should be dead and I'm not. Look at how well I'm doing and look at the sports I'm participating in. I have a good quality of life."

Parobec said he was compelled to go after competing in the Canadian version of the games in Calgary last summer.

He earned six gold and four silver medals then, but gathering with other transplant recipients was the most fulfilling.

"We all have the same stories basically. It was so neat to share them and be with these people and see how much energy they have and just how well organ donation works."

Parobec was 38 years old, living in Winnipeg and teaching and coaching at a high school when he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy - a disease of the heart muscle that, in his case, caused enlargement.

The condition made him easily fatigued and breathless with the least bit of exertion - he'd have to take a break just walking to his car. And fluid buildup caused bloating that compromised his other organs.

It also took its toll on his son and daughter.

"I remember him being really active when I was a kid with my brother and I and it just seemed to stop," said Samantha. "I was about 12 when he started having difficulties with his heart condition and in your formative teenage years it's more of what you remember."

He also suffered atrial fibrillation or A-fib, an irregular heartbeat that would routinely send him to the hospital for defibrillation over a period of six years.

"They kept putting the paddles to me and after about 36 times, I woke up and they put the paddles down, they said 'Well I guess we won't be doing this anymore.'"

His only chance was a new heart.

By 2008, he'd passed more than two dozen tests to determine whether he could successfully take a new heart. He was on a donor waiting list and living in Vancouver with his spouse so he could be close to St. Paul's Hospital.

He was happy to be closer to his two children and two grandchildren, who by then were living in Kamloops, but was near death and didn't know whether a heart would arrive in time.

"It was stressful," said Parobec's spouse, Barbara Hillman, who spent the bulk of her days supporting him emotionally, financially and physically.

Finally on June 8, 2008, three months after getting on the list, his beeper went off.

It would be the beginning of a new quality of life - one he hadn't experienced for nearly two decades.

But first, he had to survive the extremely perilous procedure.

"Usually one third of people die just waiting and than one third of people die as a result of complications," said Parobec.

Hillman was undaunted.

"I had all the faith in the world that that was going to take care of the problem," she said.

The recovery, however, was more gruelling than they were prepared for. Instead of walking within a few days, as typical heart transplant recipients do when surgery goes well, he remained unconscious for five days.

And when he did wake up, the drugs' side effects and excruciatingly slow improvements took their toll.

"I was so depressed and the drugs they put you on the mood changes and swings were incredible," he said.

"I wanted to give up like 'Take the heart back, give it to somebody else, I don't want this quality of life.' It was crazy. I didn't want to talk to the nurses anymore because I was just miserable so I tried writing it down but . . . my writing was illegible."

Slowly but surely he did get better. His body didn't reject the organ, but this fact had to be determined every week through a biopsy - "taking chunks out of the heart," as Parobec puts it, after accessing it through the carotid artery.

He now volunteers to be the subject of any study he comes across so he can help discover less invasive post-transplant treatments. He's even volunteering for a study while in South Africa.

He can't return to work since exposure to kids' germs with his compromised immune system could be fatal.

"I know two people who had heart transplants and went back to teaching and both died within two years," he said.

Undeterred by the meagre disability benefits he receives, he's nonetheless been able to save enough to make the trip.

"I don't know, something came over me and I said 'Oh geez, an extra chance at life here and to do something like that where all around it'll be people just like me.'"

His only regret is that he can "only" compete in five athletic pursuits such is his enthusiasm for his newfound life.

His daughter is still astonished by the change in her father.

"He does everything now. I don't know how to describe it. It makes me really, really happy to see him doing all these things. It's like he's making up for lost time. He has so much energy for his grandchildren, my kids. They will never know their GG not being active. He beats all of us in footraces it's pretty embarrassing."

And ever present is the donor.

After the Canadian Transplant Games, Parobec sent a gold medal to the donor's family along with a letter. The family received the package but chose not to respond, according to the Canadian Transplant Association, which acts as an intermediary between recipients and donor families.

Parobec understands.

He and his loved ones continue to highlight the benefits of organ donation at every opportunity.

They implore people to place their name on a donor list by filling out the registration form at transplant.bc.ca.

Samantha says she knows firsthand how easily ignored the topic can be for anyone who hasn't lived through it.

"Really, until it affected me personally with my dad I hadn't thought about it. It seems like it's not going to happen to you," she said.

"It's amazing. . . . Modern science, eh?"

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