Selfless – the act of being concerned more with the needs and wishes of others than with one’s own. Selfless people do not need any recognition, they have an inherent and insatiable need to make a difference in the lives of others. While it is easy to define, putting it into practice is a different story, but for McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) Foundation volunteer Rosa Shields, this has been her way of life for over two decades.
At 23 years old, life threw her a curveball. Rosa was diagnosed with acute kidney failure, which was discovered after she and husband tried unsuccessfully to start a family for over a year. “Both of my kidneys were virtually the size of peanuts and were functioning at only 20% of their capacity. My whole world came crashing down on me in an instant,” she recalls.
Rosa’s healthcare journey is nothing short of miraculous – she was given the gift of life not once, but twice. After dialysis was no longer effective, a transplant became her only option. With luck on her side, a match was found within two months to the day that her name was placed on the waiting list. Rosa underwent a successful transplant, which she lived with for nine years until she experienced kidney failure again. To make matters even worse, she had contracted Hepatitis C, most likely through a tainted blood transfusion, and she now needed a liver transplant as well. The catch: both organs needed to be a match and from the same donor.
“When I got the news, there were so many emotions running through me – shock, disbelief, and fear,” she says. Rosa started hemodialysis treatments and struggled to keep a positive attitude. “I treated my trips to the Royal Victoria Hospital at the MUHC as if I was going to work. I would get dressed up and put a bit of makeup on. I was living my life and I told myself that I wasn’t going to die in a dialysis chair,” she says.
After two years, Rosa got the good news that a match had been found. Rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night, it was only as she was waiting to go into the operating room, that she received a crushing blow: both organs were not a perfect match. “It was the worst day of my life,” she says. With her body getting weaker, time was quickly running out, and Rosa was eventually given one more month to live. She accepted her fate. “I was so lucky to have been able to live as long as I had because quite frankly, I should have been dead. I was ok with dying,” she says. Then, four months after the false match, she got the call, and this time, it was for real. Although her immune system was compromised, Rosa’s doctors at the MUHC insisted that she would pull through this risky and complex double transplant – and she did.
Since the day of her last surgery, Rosa has vowed to do everything in her power to support other patients who are in need of a transplant. For the past 19 years, she has organized the annual Celebration of Life fundraising event at the Le Crystal reception hall. This year’s edition will be held on Friday, October 12 and will mark the initiative’s emerald anniversary. What started as a small get together between transplant patients has now grown into so much more. “Celebration of Life is not your typical fundraising event, it is truly patient-focused. Doctors, nurses and patients all mingle and sit together, and there is a wonderful sense of community that is fostered,” Rosa explains.
At each edition, Rosa ensures that a member of the transplant community in Montreal is recognized for their efforts. “Over the years, we have honoured surgeons, nurses, technicians, organizations, and live donors,” she explains. This year, the event will be honouring the work of Transplant Quebec.
Since its inception, Celebration of Life has raised over $1 million dollars, which has gone directly towards improving patient care within the transplant unit at the MUHC. From purchasing new equipment to funding research and supporting patient education initiatives, the impact that Rosa continues to make is impressive. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my donor family. If I know that someone needs something, I will go into debt to make sure that the person has it,” she says.
Although there will be a few more bells and whistles at this year’s edition as part of its 20th anniversary, what will remain the same is the passion and dedication that Rosa puts into making the event a tremendous success year after year. “I was fortunate to be given the gift of life and I have been blessed to be able to give back as much as I have. I believe so much in the cause,” she says.
Positive and down to earth, Rosa speaks from the heart. When asked what she hopes her legacy will be, she pauses for a moment, and then thoughtfully replies, “I would like to be remembered as somebody who did her best giving back to others with the life I was blessed to live.”
Selfless is Rosa Shields.