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Christmas is a special time for B.C.’s second-longest-living heart transplant recipient
Kaj Bye-Jensen received the most generous Christmas gift of his life 18 years ago – a new heart.
And because of that new heart – donated by an Alberta teenager killed in a tragic automobile accident – Bye-Jensen has been able to continue leading an active, healthy and productive life.
Jensen had a big heart, literally, and it almost killed him.
Eighteen years after undergoing heart transplant surgery, Bye-Jensen continues to live life to the fullest as one of Canada’s longest-living heart transplant recipients.
He will be forever grateful to the doctor’s who performed the heart transplant and the young man who signed his donor card and his family as the surgery saved his life.
“I was pronounced dead … I flatlined after suffering cardiac arrest” back in 1995 while living in Vancouver, said Bye-Jensen, who is the picture of health after recently celebrating his 74th birthday. “Because of the kindness of strangers, here I am just having celebrated my 74th birthday and I can remember worrying about whether or not I would be around much longer after my 54th birthday.
“I received a very special gift of life and for that I’m very thankful.”
Ironically, Bye-Jensen’s heart transplant surgery took place on Christmas morning 1995.
“It was the best Christmas gift anyone could ever ask for,” said Bye-Jensen’s wife Joanie. “It is so ironic he had his surgery on Christmas day because he was in pretty rough shape and who knows how long he would have lived if he hadn’t received his new heart.
“Christmas is always special, but it’s a little more special for us.”
Bye-Jensen, who was born and raised in Denmark, but has called Canada home since coming over for a visit to Vancouver when he was 26 years of age and falling in love with Joanie, said he gets emotional every time he talks about the young man who helped save his life.
“Like other organ transplant programs in Canada, you don’t know who the donor is,” he said. “But they do tell you how old he was and where he came from.
“When I talk about what he did for me, it’s very emotional because you realize this young man lost his life and this family lost their son at Christmas time … and he was only 19,” said Bye-Jensen near tears.
“When I was in hospital for my surgery, we found out that the lady across the hall also received the lungs from the same donor. This young man helped save the lives of two complete strangers … that’s incredible.”
Bye-Jensen and his wife celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary this past summer.
They met in a bar in Vancouver – called Oil Can Harry’s and it was “pretty much love at first sight,” said Joanie laughing.
“We met on Feb. 1, we moved in together on May 1 and we got married Aug. 10 …
… we’ve been together ever since.”
After spending 34 years in Coquitlam and raising a family – they have two sons and three grandchildren – Kaj and Joanie moved to Osoyoos eight years ago to retire.
“We used to go camping in Osoyoos for many years and loved it,” he said. “When we decided to retire we went looking up and down the coast and all over the province and decided this is where we wanted to be.
“Osoyoos has the best weather and we had met a lot of good friends over the years. We couldn’t have chosen a better place to retire … we just love it here.”
Bye-Jensen’s medical problems started in 1992 when he suffered a minor stroke while driving home from work.
A series of medical tests confirmed he “had an enlarged heart and it was very serious,” he said.
After receiving some medication and feeling alright for a few days, Bye-Jensen fell seriously ill a few weeks later while going to pick up blood test results from a laboratory.
“I had cardiac arrest right at this clinic called Biolab,” he said. “Fortunately for me, it was located right across from the fire hall and firefighters arrived within seconds and were pounding on my chest to revive me right away or I might have died right there.”
An ambulance and paramedics arrived within a couple of minutes and transported him to hospital.
Things went from bad to worse at hospital.
“Doctors told me I had flat lined and my heart had stopped and they had to revive me,” he said.
Because he had an enlarged heart and had suffered a serious heart attack, doctors “started talking about a possible transplant” but heart transplants were only 80 per cent successful back in the early 1990s, said Bye-Jensen.
He and his wife opted for him to retire from work, get on medication and lead a more sedate and quiet lifestyle, which they did for three years.
During one of his regular visits to his cardiologist in November of 1992, that all changed.
“I was walking up this big hill from the parking lot at Vancouver General and I was huffing and puffing for air … and right then and there I looked at my wife and told her I was ready to go on the list (for a transplant),” he said. “I didn’t want to live like that any more.
“Doctors talked to both of us about a possible transplant and to make sure we would have a support system in place and the decision was made then and there to try and get a transplant.”
Seven weeks later, Dr. Hector Ling, one of the country’s most renowned heart transplant surgeons, gave Bye-Jensen a new heart and new lease on life.
“It took only two-and-a-half hours and everything went perfect,” he said. “When I woke up, I remember there was a nurse at the end of my bed and I wasn’t sure if it was a person or an angel.
“When I woke up a little more from the drugs, I asked why they hadn’t done the surgery and she assured me they had and congratulated me on my new heart.”
He was able to get up and walk around the hospital within three days and was released a couple of days later.
He has never suffered any serious complications in the 18-plus years with his new heart.
“I’m now the second-longest heart transplant recipient in B.C. as another man that I’ve since met had his transplant only a few days before me,” he said.
Three months after surgery, Bye-Jensen was skiing in Kelowna and he ran the 10-kilometre Sun Run in Vancouver the next summer.
Bye-Jensen competed in the World Transplant Games in Salt Lake City in 1999 against other heart transplant recipients.
The B.C. Transplant Society heard about his story and asked him to be their “poster boy” and used a picture of Bye-Jensen for their posters and brochures over the past 17 years.
Bye-Jensen and his wife urge all healthy Canadians to support transplant programs and help save lives.
He and his wife visit Penticton Regional Hospital every Christmas season and talk to people waiting for organ transplants.
“I never get tired of telling my story because my hope is it will encourage people to become donors and help save lives,” he said.
Bye-Jensen thanks his wife for her undying love and support.
“I loved my wife a lot with my old heart and I love her even more with my new heart,” he said.