By Jessica Wallace
Kamloops This Week
Matt Lepp is grateful for Stephanie.
She’s the reason he’s back to work at Treetop Flyers and why he’s able to make summer plans to go rock climbing and do other outdoor adventures.
Because, when Lepp needed someone to give him part of their liver, Stephanie stepped up, quite possibly saving his life.
“You can’t even describe it,” Lepp, 28, told the newspaper. “It’s such a brave and selfless thing that someone would do for someone else.
“I’m just grateful forever.”
When Lepp was 18, he was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis – a slowly progressing disease that affects the ability for bile ducts to carry digestive liquid from the liver to the small intestine — and lived without symptoms for nearly a decade.
In 2006, Lepp moved to Kamloops from Saskatchewan to study tourism at Thompson Rivers University before he and others started the ziplining company in Chase.
Symptoms of the disease began to surface last spring.
It started with feelings of weakness, decreased energy and weight loss.
The once seemingly dormant disease progressed to infections that landed him in the hospital.
The doctor said he would need a transplant because, Lepp said, he was “basically in liver failure.”
With high demand – more than 1,600 Canadians are added to organ wait lists each year, according to the Canadian Transplant Association – and a long wait list, Lepp’s doctor recommended he find a living donor, someone who would willingly donate part of their organ directly to him.
“In my case, my MELD score [which determines one’s place on the transplant list] didn’t reflect how sick I was,” Lepp said.
“Basically, doctors told me I wouldn’t have lived long enough to receive a donated organ.”
Several family members were tested and cousin Stephanie Lepp Hickey – who Lepp said is more like a sibling and who is also in her mid-20s – was a match.
She flew into Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital from her home in Dallas, Tex., to donate 70 per cent of her liver to Lepp.
The major surgery took Stephanie out of work for a month and left Lepp with a scar that runs inches across and down his stomach.
He also faced months of physiotherapy and will take anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life.
Nonetheless, he has been left “feeling awesome.”
“It’s a pretty amazing thing, organ donation, because you go from being sick and, in a lot of cases, being on the brink of death, to waking up and just feeling like a new person,” he said.
“I’m feeling actually better than I ever have.”
Eight months later, gratitude has turned to advocacy.
Lepp hosted a gala in Kamloops last week to raise funds for the Canadian Transplant Association and spread the word about organ donation.
Guest speakers included Lepp, Margaret Benson from the Canadian Transplant Association and Abby Farnsworth, a local teenaged transplant survivor.
When Lepp looks at the numbers, he can rattle off reasons he thinks Canadians aren’t registering for organ donation.
There’s forgetfulness, procrastination and even laziness but, mostly, he said, “people don’t want to think about it.”
In reality, however, signing up to donate organs and tissue can save up to eight lives and impact up to 75 others, according to the Canadian Transplant Association.
Lepp is one of them.
“Only about 25 per cent of Canadians are registered organ donors,” Lepp said.
“About 90 per cent of people are in favour of it, but not a lot of people actually then take that and actually register.”
He said it’s easy and encourages people to have conversations with family members and register by visiting Service BC, at 455 Columbia St., Kamloops, or by filling out the form that comes with a driver’s licence.
“There are so many people waiting for an organ and a second chance at life,” Lepp said.