By Wendy Elliott
Young Kentville mom Becky d’Entremont is the poster girl for Dalhousie Medical School’s annual Molly Campaign because she could have died.
Last summer, Becky’s liver was failing. On the transplant list since 2010, she was so sick the simplest movements were a challenge.
“I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without being short of breath…all I wanted to do was sleep,” she recalled.
Becky, who also suffered from chills, loss of appetite, memory problems and abdominal swelling, was approaching the end stages of liver failure.
“I knew I only had months to live if I didn’t get a liver transplant, but I always felt it was going to work out.”
And it did. Last August, she received a healthy donor liver in an eight-hour operation performed by Dr. Ian Alwayn, surgical lead of the Multi-Organ Transplant Program at the QEII Health Sciences Centre and professor of surgery at Dalhousie Medical School.
Diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis at age 13, the New Brunswick native was used to living with liver disease. For almost 25 years, powerful anti-inflammatory drugs slowed down the damage Becky’s immune system was wreaking on her liver, and she got on with her life.
But five years ago, her health took a negative turn, forcing her to leave her career as a dental assistant and to suspend most of her activities.
“I couldn’t do anything with the kids,” she recalled. “Even taking them to the movies was too much.”
Her husband Gerard remembers a number of incidents that shocked him into realizing how serious the turn in Becky’s illness was.
“She was dropping things and slurring her words, and then one day she fell down the steps,” he recounted. “We learned that this was because toxins building up in her liver were going to her brain.”
On another frightening occasion, her sodium levels dropped to life-threatening lows before emergency treatment corrected them.
Daughter Darcy, 12, remembers thinking her mom was lazy because she slept so much and yet looked fine. “I didn’t really understand.”
This past summer, however, the d’Entremont family enjoyed an active season for a change, hiking, biking, camping and swimming.
“We were on the go every day, the kids have never been so happy,” Becky said. Now she swims with Darcy and takes archery with her 14-year-old daughter, Heather. Gerard doesn’t have to be “Mr. Mom” anymore.
“It’s amazing how one organ can affect the whole body, the whole system,” Gerard said.
After a year of recovery, Becky is grateful to her Halifax transplant team and the support she received from family and friends. So she decided it was pay back time and decided to share her story in support of The Molly Appeal.
“This is an important cause,” her husband adds. “It’s the least we can do to support the doctors and nurses and the whole organization.”
Dr. Alwayn’s aim is to see more healthy organs become available and patients can receive transplants sooner.
“My research aims to protect donor organs from the injury that they normally sustain during the transplant process, so we have more organs available for patients,” Dr. Alwayn said. “This means patients won’t need to wait so long and more patients may be transplanted.”
The Molly Appeal
Proceeds from this year’s Molly Appeal will go to purchase a high-speed flow cytometer. This sophisticated equipment will allow researchers to analyze more than 20,000 cells per second.
According to Dr. Jean Marshall, head of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Dalhousie Medical School, this $200,000 piece of equipment will allow for investigations not currently possible at the Halifax medical school and replace a 10-year-old device.
Marshall, who is a lead researcher on the AllerGen National Centres for Excellence Canadian Food Allergy Strategy Team, said the cytometer “will help us understand the complex workings of the immune system and develop new and more effective strategies for treating and preventing infections, inflammatory and allergic diseases.”
Jyl MacKinnon, who is director of development for the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, says there is “phenomenal work” happening here in the Maritimes.
More than two dozen top researchers are involved in immune system studies. They aim not only to ease people’s pain, but also to stop inflammation so the body can heal – reversing such diseases as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis.
Dr. Marshall wants to know why some people develop life-threatening food allergies while others do not. Some researchers are leading global efforts to see if immunizing women during pregnancy can safely protect their infants from whooping cough, while others are working to improve vaccine protection against influenza in seniors and other people with weakened immune systems.
One in 31 North Americans suffer from an inflammatory autoimmune disease and approximately one million Canadians are sufferers. Allergic diseases, like asthma, also affect a significant proportion of the population.
“Our donors are so generous and so loyal. They’ve given for over 30 years and we’re very grateful,” MacKinnon said.
All donations made to the foundation go directly to support four areas of research and MacKinnon notes that last year’s cardiovascular campaign exceeded its goal.
The campaign is named after Molly Moore, who believed change could come about if everyone gave a gift to medical research.