Working two jobs as she did at the time, from dawn ‘til dusk, seven days a week, you can understand why Joan Barker felt tired and under the weather.
It was 1986. Barker, from Lumby, then 43, was divorced with five kids, all out of the house. She’d start her day at 4:30 a.m. working at the Lumby Chicken Place restaurant. Then, when that was done, she’d head over to the Ramshorn Motel and Pub, where she cleaned the rooms, and cleaned and worked as a waitress at the pub.
“I got what I thought was the flu and I thought I was going to start to get better,” said Barker, now 74, still living in the village. “My first indication something wasn’t right was I got extreme heartburn and really itchy skin.
“Then, my eyes turned yellow.”
Barker went and had a blood test, which showed her liver count was high, in the 1,000s, well above normal levels. A biopsy was performed but no diagnosis was given to her until a month later.
Primary biliary cirrhosis.
It’s an inflammation that causes progressive scarring of the bile ducts in the liver, eventually blocking the ducts then scarring the liver, resulting in cirrhosis and liver failure. Cirrhosis is severe scarring of the liver that destroys the organ’s internal structure and its ability to function.
There is no cure for this disease, one that Barker has no idea how she contracted it as she was a non-drinker. Nobody in her family had liver disease.
Only a transplant could save her.
“I just had to keep going for checkups in Vancouver,” said Barker. “When I got sicker, they gave me a beeper and was told to wear that beeper. When a liver became available, I’d get beeped. They used to check with me every Thursday.”
Barker was sick for seven years. She had just turned 50, in October 1993, when she got a belated birthday gift nearly three months later.
“One day, the beeper went off on a Saturday and the doctor told me to get to Vancouver because they had a liver,” said Barker. “The Lumby ambulance came and picked me up to take me to Vernon. In Vernon, I was met by a Kelowna ambulance who took me to the airport and I was taken by air ambulance to Vancouver.”
The next morning – Jan. 9, 1994 – Barker received a new liver from an unidentified donor.
What was supposed to be a 13-hour operation lasted only seven, everything went so well.
“I was a miracle,” said Barker. “I was only in the hospital for 11 days. I was supposed to stay in Vancouver for three months for checkups and lab work, and I did so well they sent me home in less than two months.”
Slightly more than 24 years after the transplant, Barker is still kicking around the village without complications.
“Not for one minute, not for one second,” said Barker, who never returned to either job post-transplant.
Asked if she ever wanted to find out who donated the liver, Barker said sometimes she wants to know.
“I’m just so thankful.”
The transplant allowed her to watch her grandchildren and great-grandchildren be born and be part of their lives growing up.
The life expectancy for a liver transplant recipient is five years. Barker is certainly one of the longest surviving transplant recipients in B.C.
“The last time I went to see the doctor, there was a small group at his office and he introduced me by saying, “Hey everybody. This lady is almost at 25 years survival,” said Barker. “Everybody started clapping.”
Barker, of course, is an advocate for organ donation.
With this being organ donor and tissue donor awareness week, communities are stepping forward encouraging their citizens to become organ donors.
The Morning Star profiled the story of kidney transplant survivor Sid Adams last week. The City of Vernon has issued a challenge to register 1,000 citizens to BC’s Organ Donor Registry this week. You can help reach the goal by registering your wishes today.
“Becoming an organ and tissue donor is a selfless act and you could be offering the gift of life to someone,” said Vernon Mayor Akbal Mund. “I registered in under five minutes. It’s easy and it makes you feel like you have already made a difference in someone’s life by signing up.”
To register your wishes, have your BC Personal Health Number (PHN) ready and visit https://register.transplant.bc.ca. You can also visit www.vernon.ca and follow the link. You may have already registered your decision for organ donation, so it’s good to double-check.
“While you can register your wishes for organ donation at any ICBC drivers licensing offices or Service BC office, your decision is linked to your Personal Health Number — not your driver’s licence,” said Tanya Colledge, community initiatives and social media coordinator for BC Transplant. “Your decision then goes into an electronic database that BC Transplant can access should you be in a position to be an organ donor.
If someone is unsure if they’ve registered their wishes, they can use our online tool at transplant.bc.ca to find out. Simply enter your PHN number and the system will tell you if and when you registered. If you haven’t registered, you can do so online.”