“This is very serious. Very. Do you understand? Do you have any questions for me?” The doctor knelt beside my bed, holding my hands and giving me a look so serious that his meaning could not be missed. I shook my head … for about two weeks.
Eventually, in December 2021, the conversation had to happen. “You have a 58.2% likelihood of fatality within 90 days, but most likely you will start to deteriorate very quickly within 30 days.” He explained that there was a less than 20% chance I’d make it to next Christmas, so to enjoy this one. I asked if there was any chance I’d make it five years to 50, and he looked me straight in the eye and said, “no.”
I knew I had one hour, and then I’d have to perform. It was my work holiday party, and I’d just started at this firm. I broke down briefly, and when I felt myself going into shock, knew I could use it to make a phone call. I knew I could only handle doing it once if I was going to function – and lawyers always function. So, I called my eldest daughter, and told her as calmly as I could that I was dying. And then I went into work mode, shaking hands and making small talk through dinner, all the while seeing my phone light up in my lap and knowing it was my mother, my grandparents, my children, as I smiled and nodded. I left and told my dog, Pippa, that we had to talk.
A few days later, I took possession of an empty house for which, before I fell ill, I’d signed a five-year lease. I’d recently left Toronto for Ottawa for a ‘calmer, quieter life’, getting rid of my furniture when my last child left for university. I knew that anything I purchased would need to be disposed of by my children almost immediately, but I wanted it to look welcoming enough for them to want to visit. (To this day, I still don’t own a cookie sheet or a ladle.)
Needless to say, it was quite a week.
The following week, my daughter and my specialist were describing live donor transplants to me. Before they could really finish, I remember saying, “Absolutely not. No. I will not put my children through surgery and with anyone else … do you KNOW what kind of STRINGS would be attached to THAT? Your life would never be your own.”
Right before my son left to go back to school, he asked me to promise that I would do everything the doctors told me to do to stay alive, whether I agreed with it or not. I promised, and I kept it.
We proceeded to have what I thought would be our last Christmas. It felt like I was watching their next Christmas without me, and I knew that every year, they’d have a quick moment that would be sad. I realized I wouldn’t be at their graduations, weddings, next weddings (just kidding – a little divorce law humour). The one aspect of my life that had always made me happiest, knowing my children, was about to end. Right before my son left to go back to school, he asked me to promise that I would do everything the doctors told me to do to stay alive, whether I agreed with it or not. I promised, and I kept it.
The transplant evaluation process began in March and is an experience in and of itself. It was about two months long, and the most similar experience I’ve ever had was trying to get into university, but exponentially more personal. To be clear, the medical team at Toronto General Hospital was incredible, but the reality is that there are far more people who need organs than organs to go around. This necessarily requires some significant judgement calls. One of the key pieces for someone young and mildly work-obsessed was whether I could be trusted to put myself and my health before my career, and while I was assuring them I could, I realized how much I never had.
I obviously did a lot of thinking over the time I was terminal. I never felt like I didn’t get to live a full life. I’d had my first daughter on my 20th birthday, and annoyed all three of my children endlessly with the tale of walking across Kingston with her to a food bank, taking her to Osgoode Hall when we were 21 and 1. My mom was an impressive person; she was part of the 60s scoop, in foster care when I decided to come on scene, and her father had been in residential school. She worked all number of jobs to put herself through school, and at 8 years old, I looked up from a urinal I was cleaning late at night, saw a law degree on the wall of the adjoining office, and realized I was on the wrong side of this equation. So, to fix it, I worked. My kids had just grown up and were all at university, and this was not how the story was supposed to end.
It was touch and go, getting on the list, but in May, I received a call that I was on it. Suddenly, life had hope. I was feeling well, life was going well, and I stayed as positive as I could. Jack, the man I was seeing, proposed in the fall, and other than some dark “finally, til death do us part is a timeline I can wrap my head around” jokes, I tried to just focus on the future. It quickly became like planning one’s own wake, and very shortly thereafter, we nixed it.
In September, everything changed. I went into the hospital yet again, and my health started to give out. I remember describing it as feeling like a deflated beach ball caught on your shoe in a parking lot, that you were trying to kick off, but it just wouldn’t fly off. Oddly specific, I know, but it’s how I felt. By November, a surgeon explained that the reality is that you can get yourself too healthy to receive a liver from a deceased donor and too sick to live without a transplant, which is where I was at. While the crashes that I would have happened so hard and so quickly, the window of time a liver would have to be available was so short, and I was so sick during those crashes that surgery would be more difficult. It didn’t appear that it would be a viable solution.
She said, simply – and I don’t think she will mind my sharing it – that she was confident the world was a better place with me in it than not.
I received a message from my friend Robin the same week, asking about live donation. I sent her the link but explained that I also felt that I didn’t want to see anyone else suffer, any more than people already were, because of me. Her response was one I held onto through the next few months, and probably always will on the hard days. She said, simply – and I don’t think she will mind my sharing it – that she was confident the world was a better place with me in it than not. I used it as a bit of a mantra to fight harder to get healthy, and thought that was the end of it.
On January 4, 2023, I went into the transplant centre. I’d warned Jack that they were probably going to take me off the list, and I wasn’t certain they’d even let me leave the hospital. All of a sudden, these cheerful doctors and nurses were there, and with a warm smile, one doctor said, “We have a liver for you. Your surgery is January 30, and you’ll be admitted the day before. Now, we have a lot of details to tell you – do you have someone with you?”
I could not think of what on earth to say. How do you thank someone for that? For saving your life? ((The Centre has you sign many documents explaining all the ways you cannot thank someone, to avoid organ trafficking.)
Over the next few weeks, the surgery was explained and re-explained. I began deteriorating fast, being transfused and by the week before surgery, needing constant supervision to function. I would go in Sunday for tests. At 6 am Monday, Robin would be admitted and by 7:30, into surgery. They’d bring me down around 11 am into my neighbouring operating room; Robin would be done around 7 pm and I’d be done around 10 or 11 pm. While I can spare you the gross parts, I can say they are intricate. When the surgeon who was going to do mine explained it, Dr. Syed – on my list of absolute heroes, naturally –clarified that they were going to take 70 per cent of her liver, the enormity of that moment was staggering. I’ll never forget him saying, “and of course, we won’t make the final cut on you until Robin’s liver is in the room.”
Someone explained that for the rest of my life, at any time, I could reject this liver, but there would be medication, but that if I didn’t take it, I’d have maybe three days left to live. My dog and I tried to enjoy our last days of independence, but as even trying to feed her resulted in my kitchen floor covered in the entire contents of a cupboard, I knew I was done. It was time to head to Toronto. I looked into my little dog’s eyes and told her everything was going to be just fine and said goodbye.
We talk for a living, we define language for a living … and I could, and still cannot, think of the right words.
I was admitted the day before the surgery. I don’t remember very much, other than having the opportunity to thank my ex-husband for all our years of parenting and for taking it from here, and a lot of goodbyes. There were a lot of messages about religion and the afterlife coming through my phone, and a lot of worrying. Monday morning, January 30, everything started going much faster than scheduled. I needed at that point to stop worrying about how everyone else was going to do, and focus on how Robin and I were going to get through this. There was so much emotion, I needed everything to go clinical for a moment. I didn’t want to feel anything else. I was glad though that right before I went in, my daughter appeared, and I was able to say the things I really meant, really wanted to say (I always did need a deadline).
And there was Jack. He wasn’t letting me go without a goodbye. After all those months where I was so worried he was in denial, I could see that was gone. I remember three things: looking into his eyes and knowing that while this had been a short time, it had been an intense one, and as hard as it was, as many days and phases of handling falling in love while one of you is dying and trying to cushion everyone else they love, so it all falls on the other one – all the reality, all the moods, all the goo (shudder), nothing would ever be quite what this was; knowing I had to tell him everything was going to be fine and that I was ready to handle this; and that this may be the last person I know I would ever see. So, what inspirational thing did I do, you ask?
I smiled, gave him two thumbs up. Look, not every rom-com is well-written. I had places to be. Then I turned to the World’s Most Patient Nurse, thanked her, and off we went.
I remember looking around the operating room and wondering when everyone got so young; I have come to realize that we never think we age, but rather, you just wake up one day the same age you’ve always been and wonder why the world is being run by children now. In seriousness, I asked about Robin again, and they told me everything was looking great.
Robin Leighton, and her family, showed me that the world is a good place.
Before the surgery, you picture that you awaken to the realization that now you have a new lease on life, a victory, and then everyone gently hugs and lives happily ever after. I like to think that that’s the gist, eventually, but the finite details differ somewhat.
Here is, in my view, the best part of the story. (I mean, the Not Dying part is also incredibly helpful, but it’s less interesting than this part.) One of the important tenets of live donation is that the donor has to know and feel free to cancel at any moment up to surgery, so you do not see each other in advance. They do, however, schedule you to see each other afterward. I remember seeing Robin, so tiny and so sweet, with her pain-med pump, wanting to make it all go away for her, make it stop hurting. I saw her wonderful partner and also her father, and how worried they looked. I could only imagine how worried their children were at home. I thought of the discussion it must have been to make this decision, to go through the assessments, and how much all of them were sacrificing. There was such a powerful feeling of love in the room, so much gratitude, and no words that would work. We talk for a living, we define language for a living … and I could, and still cannot, think of the right words. It is a speechless moment, however, to see an act of spontaneous goodness, genuine selflessness, and humbling, beautiful, kindness.
Robin Leighton, and her family, showed me that the world is a good place. I saw what ‘good’ means, what great means. I saw, through this moment in time, through the support of family and friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in years, the flexibility and understanding of colleagues and the court, and the dedication, precision and advocacy of the medical professionals who saved me, that the next half of my life was so very worth fighting for. I will be forever grateful.
My favourite joke is now "I’m not just one lawyer; I’m two" and then just not explaining.
The fight isn’t all the way over, but it’s close. As for Pippa the Dog, when I came home after the transplant, it was like she knew I wasn’t sick anymore. She was so happy. When people say goodbye now, they have a moment where they realize it isn’t goodbye, instead of that awful moment they used to realize it may be forever. My children remain the three coolest people on earth. Robin’s liver grew back, and any time I do anything nice, when someone says, ‘thank you’, I say, “Oh, that’s Robin’s DNA.” My favourite joke is now “I’m not just one lawyer; I’m two” and then just not explaining.
As for Jack, I asked him how the happy ending should go. He asked why there would be an ending, and to that I can say … what is happy is that now, there isn’t an ending. Thanks to Robin, TGH, and the people who messaged, visited or otherwise helped carry me through this, the story is just beginning.
About the author
Bobbi Olsen is a high conflict family and child protection lawyer who has practiced in Toronto/GTA for many years, and when lockdown felt endless, relocated and began a practice at GVE Lawyers in Ottawa/Eastern Ontario as well. In addition to her LL.B., she holds a Masters of Law in Family Law from Osgoode Hall Law School and a certificate from the Master Class of Negotiation, Harvard Law School, Executive Education. An army reservist during undergrad, she jokes that she has spent her adult life learning to protect people's freedom, a value she holds dear. She is known for spontaneous solo travel, running, and spending too much time alone with her dog, Pippa.
Bobbi’s journey has been the longer and more involved one; I’m a late arrival. Bobbi and I had been colleagues for some years; we were friends on social media, and I always enjoyed catching up with her when we met at CLE events. In recent years our contact had been more sporadic; I had begun working up in Newmarket and she had moved her practice to Ottawa, but I always enjoyed travelling vicariously through her beautiful photos of the amazing locales she visited (thank you to all of you who let us share your trips this way!).
In November of 2022 she was on a trip to Bali, and one of her posts appeared in my feed. She shared two photos of herself, one with face filters and one without, to give support to a friend who was struggling and to say that social media isn’t the whole story. This grabbed my attention, and I went to read everything on her page to understand more of what was happening. I hadn’t seen a number of her posts, and I learned that she was seriously unwell, and was living on borrowed time.
I am keenly aware of what it is to die before your time, and what is lost.
My mother died of metastatic breast cancer halfway through my second year of law school. She missed my graduation, my call to the bar, and the birth of all three of my children to name but a few highlights. I am keenly aware of what it is to die before your time, and what is lost. I realised that Bobbi was five months younger than me, and I knew she had three children of her own.
I reached out to ask her if she would be okay with my applying to be a donor. I knew that it was possible to donate a piece of one’s liver, in much the same way you can donate a kidney. Her response was much more measured than I think I would have been in her situation; she sent me the link to inquire but told me I really didn’t have to do this. Put bluntly: the hell I didn’t. I filled out the form that night and sent it in the next day.
I spoke to my family as soon as I made the decision to apply, to make sure they were comfortable with what I was doing. My father was understandably a little nervous about the surgery, but fully in support of what I wanted to do; my fiancé was prepared to do whatever was needed to support me; and my children thought this was a very good thing. Most touching was my conversation with my eldest, who was 14: I explained to her that I had a friend in liver failure, and she needed a transplant to survive. I told her that it was possible to donate a piece of your liver to someone and still live on, and before I could say, “This is something *I* want to do for her,” she said to me, “Okay Mom. Will I have a big scar?” She thought I was asking her to donate and was prepared to do so. I made it clear it was *me* who would be making this donation, NOT HER, but the pride I felt at her immediate response was tremendous.
Funnily enough, the more they talked to me about the risks, the more comforted I was that I would be safe.
The assessment process was very, VERY thorough, which only served to make me feel better about my decision. I was given a CT scan and an MRI to ensure that my anatomy allowed the surgery to be done safely. I gave so many vials of blood for testing that I suggested to the phlebotomist that the surgeon might secretly be a vampire. I spoke with two surgeons, a psychologist, and a social worker to ensure that I understood the procedure and that I was prepared for all possibilities. Funnily enough, the more they talked to me about the risks, the more comforted I was that I would be safe. No one in Canada has ever died from the procedure, and I’m not so special I’m going to be the first. They had screened me for any conditions that would cause me to need a transplant myself as a result of the donation. All that left were treatable, non-fatal, no-more-than-inconvenient side effects, and those were entirely manageable. I also learned that when a portion of the liver is removed, the liver regenerates, and grows back to its former size, so I would ‘get back’ what I gave after about three months.
The decision to donate to Bobbi was the easiest one ever.
The surgery itself was the easiest part for me since I was asleep! I woke up feeling achy and worn out, but overall fine. I was very well looked-after as far as pain management and post-surgical care, and was able to leave the hospital five days later. I was able to then rest and recuperate at home, with the full support of my family. I also had the full support of Legal Aid Ontario and the North Toronto duty counsel team with whom I work. My colleagues at 47 Sheppard picked up all of the slack left by my absence so that I could go through the surgery worry-free; I’m tremendously grateful to all of them.
The decision to donate to Bobbi was the easiest one ever. I’ve never had a moment’s doubt, and I’m so glad to have done it. My liver has regenerated, and Bobbi has more time. I’m so happy to have helped this happen.
About the author
Robin, who is originally from New Brunswick, went to law school with the intention of practicing family law in Toronto, and hasn't looked back since. She has been a family lawyer since her call to the Bar in 2003, first in private practice and now with Legal Aid Ontario, and gets to work with some of the best colleagues ever. When not working, she enjoys knitting, rock climbing, and the joyful chaos that comes with a family that includes three children and four cats.