Calgary woman continues to promote organ donation five years after husband’s death

Liz Small’s husband, David, became an organ donor after his death on Thanksgiving Day 2017

By Leanne Murray | October 5, 2022 |5:00 am

David, Chloe, and Liz enjoy a family trip to Mexico prior to David’s death.

Photo: Submitted

Fun to be with and full of life. That’s how Liz Small describes her late husband, David.

“It was a cute story,” she says, describing how they met. David was born in Scotland and moved to Alberta when he was four.

Small, originally from the UK, was backpacking around Australia when she met a vacationing David by chance and the two ended up sharing a cab.

After Small returned to England, David called her about six weeks later and asked if he could come to visit.

“I said ‘of course you can,’” Small says. They were married in England within a year.

Two years later, they welcomed their daughter, Chloe, into the world.

Battling chronic pain

David had chronic pain issues following a series of unfortunate incidents.

“He was terribly accident prone. He had a very bad motorbike accident when he was 19,” Small says.

“He also was working on West Edmonton Mall when part of the roof fell on him. That’s when he broke his back the first time.”

Despite his injuries, Small says nothing ever kept David down.

“He was told he would never walk again and six months later [he was] playing football. He was that kind of guy,” she says.

“He was a go-getter. He was always working, or he was always doing something or building something.”

Liz says David was fun to be with and full of life.

Relocating to Calgary

However, due to his chronic pain, David couldn’t handle the climate in England.

“The English climate was just too damp for him and he was in too much pain,” Small says.

So, after eight years of living in the UK, the family moved to Canada. After about three years in Kingston, Ont., they made the move to Calgary.

“He was an Alberta boy,” Small says, adding David took up employment with custom home builders as a framer, roofer, and eventually a supervisor.

“He was very proud of his work. He had an incredible work ethic. But he always had this underlying problem and he was always in pain.”

Admittedly, Small didn’t realize the extent of David’s pain until after he died.

“You don’t see the etched look of agony on someone’s face when you wake up next to it every morning… when it’s smiling,” she says, adding David was always very physical.

An unforgettable day

On Thanksgiving Day in 2017, not long after their 20th wedding anniversary, David was rushed to hospital after attempting to take his own life at the age of 55.

Small was shocked, thinking never in a million years David would try to end his life, despite his chronic pain.

“You think you know somebody after 20 years,” she says.

David suffered four cardiac arrests while en route to Foothills Medical Centre. Small and Chloe, then 18, followed closely behind the ambulance in a police cruiser.

Upon arrival at the hospital, the two were devastated to learn that there was no hope and David was brain dead.

“I cannot speak highly enough about the team at Foothills because they were incredible,” Small says.

The organ donation process

Amid the overwhelming shock and sadness, one of the doctors approached Small to discuss David’s status as an organ donor.

“Honestly, it was like the skies opened. It was unbelievable and almost like, suddenly I could see sunshine,” Small says.

“The idea that he could actually, in his passing, physically help other people was incredible. Really, really incredible. It made me so proud of him.”

David was transferred to the ICU. He was deemed ineligible to donate skin tissue or blood since he had lived in England during the BSE (mad cow disease) outbreak.

Small says David’s heart was damaged beyond repair, a small nodule was discovered on his liver, and his lungs were too big for the patients on the transplant list.

His kidneys, however, were healthy, and were able to go to two recipients.

“They treated us with such kindness and such respect and they made the whole process bearable,” Small says of the transplant team and ICU nurses, who she describes as some of the most incredible people she’s ever met.

Liz and David were married for 20 years.

Promoting organ donation

After consenting to be an organ donor herself many years ago, Small says she was proud and thankful that David had signed up.

She encourages everyone who can be an organ donor to do the same and to discuss it with their loved ones.

“I want him to be a poster child for it because I think that it’s something we’ve got to talk about,” Small says, adding there’s more to it than simply donating organs after you die.

She wants people to understand that organs can only be harvested from a donor who is still breathing but whose body is no longer able to support life.

Canadian Blood Services confirms that only about one to two per cent of hospital deaths allow for organ donation.

The greatest gift

Even so, Small says becoming an organ donor is the greatest gift someone can give to humanity.

“You don’t know who you’re going to be helping. I think there’s nothing nicer than being able to give a gift that you will never actually hear a thank you for, but you know that it’s going to mean so much to so many.”

Small says David’s gift took the sting out of the agony she was feeling when he died.

“It gave me something really positive to hang on to and to feel that we were making the absolute best of something that was so awful. It saved my soul and my mental health in what would otherwise have been such a pointless loss of a beautiful life.”

To learn more and become an organ donor, click HERE.

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Leanne Murray

Leanne is a Calgary Citizen reporter.

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