ONE HEART BEATS FOR TWO FAMILIES

By Carol Mulligan/The Sudbury Star :Wednesday, April 20, 2005 - 11:00
Local News -

Bill Anger still finds it difficult to reconcile the fact that the heart beating in his chest isn’t his own. All he can do is thank Ryan Vlaad and his family for his life. On July 20, 2002, the 55-year-old London, Ont., RCMP officer was dying of heart and liver failure. That day, Ryan Vlaad, 26, of Espanola, sustained a blow to the back of the head in a random act of violence outside a London hotel. A disease called amyloidosis, which affects one in eight million people, was killing Anger, leaving him with only three months to live unless an organ donor could be found. Ryan Vlaad became that donor, and a day doesn’t go by that Anger doesn’t wake up thinking, ―I’m alive because someone gave me the gift of life.

Anger calls it his miracle — and miracles weren’t something the burly cop used to believe in. But he has had to rethink a lot of things in the last two and a half years and he is convinced some things are just meant to be. If they weren’t, Anger would never have met Ryan’s parents, Diane and Bill Vlaad of Espanola, and come to share a bond with them that no one else could comprehend. ―Ours is one of a kind,‖ says Anger about the relationship in an interview at the Vlaads’ home this week. ―I don’t think it will ever happen again.‖ Anger was guest speaker at an event organized by the Vlaads in Espanola on Monday night to mark National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week. Provincial legislation prohibits anyone from knowingly revealing the identify of an organ donor, and it’s virtually unheard of that a donor’s family and an organ recipient should meet. The random blow that felled Ryan Vlaad sent him to London hospital about 1 a.m. that July morning — an hour before Anger was told a potential donor had been found. Diane and Bill Vlaad were visiting Bill’s parents in Timmins when they received a phone call that their youngest son was being kept alive on a respirator. A couple of hours later, doctors performed the double-organ transplant — the first ever done in London and only the eighth or ninth one performed in Canada. A month after Ryan’s death and Anger’s transplant, Anger’s sister sent a donation to the Vlaad family in their son’s memory, Anger told a crowd of about 75 people. Diane phoned Anger’s sister to ask how she knew Ryan, and Anger said his sister thought, ―Uh oh. It wasn’t until Anger’s father later sent a donation, on the same stationery, that the Vlaads began to suspect there might be a connection with their son. Diane called the elder Anger, and spoke with Bill’s mother, who said she would have her son call her. Anger describes that first conversation as a fishing expedition. But the evidence mounted to the point the families were left with no doubt that Ryan had been the donor who had saved Anger’s life. Five months after Ryan died, the families met. The couple travelled to London with a collage of photographs of their son, who was four days away from earning the commercial pilot’s licence he had been working on in London when he was killed. After two hours of tears, Anger noticed Diane was fidgeting as she sat beside him. He asked her what was wrong and finally she asked: ―Can I touch ... feel his heartbeat? Diane, a nurse at Espanola General Hospital, grabbed his wrist to take his pulse until Anger took her hand and placed it on his chest, over his heart. At the meeting, tears flowed and sniffles were stifled by audience members, many of whom knew Ryan, as Anger related the families’ story, and urged them to sign organ donation cards. ―Either you’re waiting for a transplant, or you may need one, or you may know someone who needs one, he said. ―If you ever want to do something right ...Back at the Vlaads’ after the meeting, Bill and Diane Vlaad and Bill Anger talked about their unusual relationship, and how they understand it might not work for everyone. The man who received their son’s organs is aware he is carrying precious cargo, and cares for himself with that in mind. Still, Bill Vlaad worries about something happening to Anger. Ryan ―still lives on in Bill Anger. If anything happens, not only will we lose a good friend, we’ll lose Ryan twice. Anger has no intention of doing anything to hurt the family’s trust or his own health. He’s single father to 16-year-old Brandi, who’s been through a lot in her young life, and he’s got two families counting on him now. The parallels between the families’ lives are astounding. Ryan was buried on Brandi’s 13th birthday. Both families once lived in Prince George, B.C. Both Anger and Ryan were pilots. As Anger laid in bed recovering after his transplant, he read the story of the young Espanola man who had been killed and who was a flyer like himself. He says he kept imagining two planes flying, then becoming one, soaring high in the sky. Living Tribute In a poem he composed a year after Ryan’s death, Anger wrote: We are as close as two people could be I feel your heart beat strong within me. Together we will be for all time One heart to live, two souls entwined. Every joy I have I will share with you Because now we live as one not two. So keep flying high with God up.