Doctor pressed parents to allow organ donation

Every parent’s worst nightmare came true for Don and Margaret Romaniuk of Lethbridge, Alta., on Feb. 13, 1998. The RCMP called at 2:30 in the morning to notify them that their daughter, Julia, had been in a car accident.

“Is she OK?” Mr. Romaniuk asked. “No, she is in serious condition…” came the reply, which sent them on a journey to a miracle.

Julia and her friend, Debra Turginrude, the driver, were thrown from the vehicle. When it came to rest on top of Julia after an end-to-end rollover, one of the other passengers and a passerby lifted the vehicle off of her. She suffered a collapsed lung, crushed vertebrae, and severe head injuries.

Mrs. Romaniuk told The Interim she remembers praying, “This is bigger than me this time. God, you’re going to have to help me with this one.”

She needed God’s help more than ever over the next nine weeks, as Julia lay in a coma. In the first days after the accident, doctors prepared them for the worst. Swelling caused the back of Julia’s head to rest on the back of her neck. Fever wracked her body as white blood cells rushed to the injuries. No one expected her to make it.

The fever and swelling persisted. After three days, Julia was transported to Calgary, where specialists said that if she survived, she would most likely be in a persistent vegetative state. They didn’t talk about recovery.

Parents, however, don’t let go of hope or their children so easily. The Romaniuks talked to their daughter, rubbed her feet and hands, and stroked her. “You have to be strong, Julia,” her mother said softly.

Only one nurse gave them any hope. “When she pushed on Julia’s pressure points, (Julia) drew up in pain,” says Mrs. Romaniuk. “It was a response, and we held on to that.”

On the eleventh day, a doctor said they needed to think about allowing Julia’s organs to be used to help others. He grew frustrated with the Romaniuks’ inability to decide, and at about four in the afternoon, said, “I’m going home, and when I get back at 6 o’clock, I want an answer.”

The Romaniuks were taken aback by his demeanour. By the time the doctor returned, they had made up their minds. “Put a trach in Julia, we are taking her home,” ordered Mr. Romaniuk. The tracheotomy was performed, and when life support was terminated, Julia breathed on her own.

“I didn’t want to be selfish about organ donation,” says Mrs. Romaniuk, “but I knew doctors may need to scavenge for organs, and I didn’t want Julia’s body cut anymore. No more pain, no more injury.” Gradually, Julia’s paralyzed body showed signs of struggling toward recovery. She sweated profusely as the fever broke, and shivers wracked her body. She also clawed the bed.

“Monotonous rocking and jerky hand movements were her way of reaching back to us,” says Julia’s mother. To calm her, Mrs. Romaniuk crawled into the bed with Julia and held and stroked her. This went on for weeks while Julia was fed 5,000 calories per day to provide energy for her constant movements.

Julia now says she saw God and two angels during this time. They told her in unison, “You have to go back, Julia. Your mom will take care of you.” She recalls that she could not see God’s face, but He was “a presence” with the voice of a man. There were no tunnels, no lights.

Finally, Julia’s eyes opened. She didn’t focus, but tracked like a newborn baby. She began making noises, then saying words. She is preparing to go home sometime in October.

Julia remains in a wheelchair, struggles with memory, and receives daily rehabilitation, but the Romaniuks, members of Immanuel Lutheran Church, thank God for the miracle given to them in her survival.

They offer this advice to others facing a loved one’s traumatic injury: Pray. Be strong. Consider no negatives. Be there as much as possible. Play music. Sing. Talk to your loved one in a coma. Do a lot of touching. Don’t allow doctors to assume you will donate organs. Don’t be pressured. Learn as much as you can. Ask questions. Don’t make a life-and-death decision until you absolutely have to, and then only after the body has a chance to come out of trauma. When that moment comes, if you must err, err on the side of life.

And never give up hope.