‘Ottawa’ ‘Their Deaths Have Not Been in Vain:’ Twins who Died in Tragic Fire Saved 10 Lives Through Organ Donation
Jacob and Gabrielle Rondeau were born minutes apart. They died minutes apart.
On Feb. 22, 2015, only three weeks after they turned 12, the twins were badly burned after a kitchen fire spread, engulfing their Gatineau apartment in flames. Barely clinging to life, the twins were rushed to hospital in Gatineau, then transferred to Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Their mother, Ericka Cormier, was away for the weekend, leaving an older sibling in charge. He had left the house for a few minutes to get pizza when the fire broke out.
By the time the RCMP had located Cormier and brought her to CHEO, the twins were on life support. Brain scans found no sign of brain function. “Jacob seemed to be sleeping, like an angel. Gabrielle was really struggling,” remembered Cormier this week in the first interview she has given since the fire.
“My first reaction was to say, ‘Yes.’ I didn’t want another family to go through such a tragedy,” she says.
“I knew there was no hope. Everything went super-fast. They asked me what I was going to do. I couldn’t keep them like this for selfish reasons. I know they have prevented someone else from dying.”
In fact, the twins have helped to save 10 people. Gabrielle and Jacob each donated five organs — pancreas, liver, heart and both kidneys — and their corneas.
The idea that some part of her children was living in someone else has helped Cormier to keep going in the face of crushing grief and despair.
“My life collapsed. They were my babies,” says Cormier, who has four older children. “Finding myself from being a mother to being nothing is complete darkness. It’s like being swallowed up in a hole. But I knew there has been a good side to it. Their deaths have not been in vain.”
There is a mismatch between the number of people who support organ donation, and those who take the step of registering for donation. In Ontario, about 85 per cent of residents are in favour of donation — but the current registration rate is only 31 per cent.
Trillium and hospitals around the province are increasingly putting measures in place to ensure that no potential organ or tissue donors are missed. Trillium requires 70 designated hospitals to refer all potential donation cases to the network and has appointed 58 donation physicians to educate hospital staff about donation. The measures appear to be working. In 2007, there were 200 deceased organ donors in the province. By 2016, that had increased to 351.
There are demand pressures. In Ontario, 1,550 people were on waiting lists for donated organs as of April 12, including about 30 children under the age of 18. Every three days, an Ontario patient dies awaiting an organ transplant, according to Trillium.
But these measures also ensure that everyone who wants to be an organ donor can do so, says Dr. Sonny Dhanani, the chief of pediatric intensive care at CHEO and the donation physician at the hospital.
“As part of good end-of-life care, being given the opportunity is important — whether they decide to take the opportunity or not,” he says. “From a medical standpoint, it should be part of end-of-life care, and not an afterthought.”
CHEO is one of the few hospitals in Ontario that has a 100 per cent “notification rate.” That means that Trillium Gift of Life is notified of every death. The next step is the “approach.” This means that Trillium has the opportunity to do an assessment to determine whether the potential donor is a good candidate for donation. If so, an organ and tissues donation co-ordinator should approach the family in a respectful way.
About two-thirds of the deaths at CHEO result in an approach. Of those, about 80 per cent result in a donation. Between Jan. 1, 2012, and Dec. 31, 2016, there were 83 organ donor referrals from CHEO and 12 organ donors, including Jacob and Gabrielle Rondeau.
“Actual donation is rare, so for us, it’s really a philosophy that this is always a part of good end-of-life care and every death matters,” says Dhanani.
Jacob and Gabrielle had a strong bond, says Cormier. Jacob succumbed while trying to save his sister from the flames.
“They loved and protected each other. Jacob was a wonderful little boy. He had so much energy. Gabrielle was more introverted. They completed each other. It was like ying and yang.”
Cormier has received letters from grateful organ recipients and their families. At first, the letters made her angry, an emotion she had to work through. These people still had their children, and she had lost her own.
“For almost a year, I isolated myself from the world. I couldn’t grieve and I couldn’t deal with the world. It’s like you rewind, and fast-forward, and rewind. You feel guilt and shame,” she says. “It will take a whole lifetime. I will never overcome the pain. But I will learn to live with it. They are in your heart and you miss them so much.”
Organ donation can help families manage their grief, says Dhanani. In the long term, organ donations gives families something to hold on to. “The support around the organ donation process helps. Years later, the legacy helps keep some part of the memory very positive,” he says.
It has taken a lot of therapy, but Cormier has come to believe that the twins were a blessing that she had borrowed for 12 years. Even if she could meet the recipient of her children’s organs, she wouldn’t want that, she says.
“I would probably cling to them.”
There is so much pain in life, and you never know when life will be taken away, says Cormier, who urges others to think about organ donation.
“If you can help just one person, consider a donation. I know it hurts to do it. You could be the one to help.”
By the numbers:
200: Number of deceased organ donors in Ontario in 2007
351: Number in 2016
1.8 million: How many many people in Ontario mistakenly believe they are a registered donor, according to an Ipsos study released this week
31 per cent: Current donor registration rate in Ontario
37 per cent: Rate in Ottawa
45 per cent: Proportion of the eligible population that would be registered if 1.8 million more people signed up
29 per cent: Proportion of Ontario residents who mistakenly believe they can register as a donor by signing and keeping a donor card. (The paper donor cards became obsolete when the province began recording consent in a database)
300,000: Number who have a donor card stored somewhere not easily accessible, such as a safety deposit box, in their car, or with someone else
71 per cent: Proportion of those who believe they are registered donors who have discussed their wishes with family
Sources: Trillium Gift of Life Network and Ipsos