Greater Sudbury has highest registration rates in Ontario
In doing so, he said he felt “absolutely useless” to patients, because he doesn't have enough education to help them yet.
The 21-year-old Université Laval student, who completed his second year of medical studies at the Québec City school this past spring, started thinking about things he could do to help people's health that doesn't require a medical degree.
That's where the idea to ride his bicycle across Canada to raise awareness of registering to become an organ donor came from.
“I thought 'What can I do right now, medically?'” he said. “I can't do anything. So what can I do? I don't need a medical degree to cross Canada on a bicycle.”
Organ donors have the potential to save eight lives and improve the quality of life for many others, Thomas, who hadn't met any organ donors or recipients in person until he started his journey, said.
“There are six sets of organs that can be donated – the heart, lungs, kidneys, pancreas, intestine and liver,” he said. “There's also six sets of tissues – skin, the cornea, connective tissue, heart valves and bone marrow.”
Thomas began his trek across Canada in Tofino, British Columbia June 25, rolling into Sudbury Aug. 15. He said he hopes to finish the journey in St. John's, Nfld. before winter weather sets in.
Université Laval's medical school program is flexible, and Thomas said he was able to complete two semesters in one during his second year. This allowed him to take the fall semester off so he could complete his journey.
Although he's had positive experiences on most days, Thomas said his trip across Canada hasn't exactly been a picnic.
He usually rides until he can't ride anymore, and then sets up his tent on the side of a highway or in a small town. He's had more than a few encounters with bears, and can't seem to cook anything that doesn't taste like kerosene.
Thomas said he looks forward to little things like drinking a whole litre of chocolate milk after a long day of cycling.
“I've been homeless for 50 days right now,” he said. “I'm not complaining here, but it's a whole different perspective.”
But Thomas said any hardship he's experienced this summer pales in comparison to what those waiting for an organ transplant go through.
That's why he's named his bicycle tour Organ Donation Heroes. These people, in Thomas' opinion, are heroes.
“It's just the way I put this journey in perspective,” he said.
“People look at crossing Canada on a bicycle as something big. But every day of cycling is less challenging, in my opinion, than one day on dialysis.
“There will be less days of cycling on my trip than there would be days of dialysis to someone who is waiting for a kidney transplant.”
It's difficult to measure the success of an awareness-raising effort such as this, Thomas said.
“Maybe 250 people are going to register because of my trip and none of them will ever become organ donors for various reasons,” he said.
“Or else, maybe only one person registers, and that person happens to save eight lives. You can't tell. You just don't know.”
Thomas is being assisted on his journey by local organ donation advocate Richard St. Amour.
While surfing on Facebook one day, St. Amour learned about Thomas' journey, and eventually phoned him to learn more.
“Honestly I thought he'd bumped his head somewhere,” he said.
“He's just doing it to raise awareness for organ and tissue donation across Canada. It's amazing. This is not a walk in the park, here. He's not going from here to Toronto or here to North Bay. It's across the country, sleeping in a tent.”
Starting in Saskatchewan, St. Amour began using his connections to arrange for Thomas to do media interviews and meet with politicians in the communities he was travelling through.
“Once I found out that his media relations person was his mom, I promised her that once he comes into Ontario, I'm going to make it the safest, smoothest, and the most productive part of his journey,” he said.
St. Amour, whose wife and son have both had kidney transplants, said the Greater Sudbury area has the highest organ donor registration rates in the province.
Garson tops the list with a 50-per-cent rate, followed by Lively and Hanmer at 49 per cent, Val Caron at 48 per cent and Sudbury proper at 44 per cent.
He said this is mostly due to advocacy work done by the Irish Heritage Club of Sudbury.
However, Ontario overall has only a 22-per-cent organ donor registration rate, which means that 78 per cent of the population isn't registered. The lowest registration rates are in the Greater Toronto area.
“9.1 million people in this province aren't registered,” St. Amour said. “That's incredible. That's unacceptable.”
The best way to ensure your wishes to be an organ donor are carried out is to register at beadonor.ca, St. Amour said.
“Simply signing my organ donor card when I got my driver's licence doesn't cut it anymore,” he said. “It's ineffective ... You're not registered into the new database.”
Frank Horan, past-president of the Irish Heritage Club of Sudbury and chair of the group's organ donation committee, commended Thomas for what he's trying to do.
“It's a pity more people don't think like he does,” he said. “I think it's great. Absolutely. It's such an important cause and such an important endeavour.”
For more information about Thomas' journey, visit www.organdonationheroes.ca.