Jordan Sykes was driving his family to the swimming pool when his wife pointed at a falling red, heart-shaped balloon on the side of the road in Beamsville, Ont.
Sykes saw something attached to the bottom of it, and pulled over to find the balloon in some brush at the roadside. There was a pink note handwritten in black ink that read: “In loving memory of Lindsay Eberhardt. Sunrise: April 21 1982. Sunset: May 13, 2017.
“It was just kind of a neat puzzle,” said Sykes. “Who was this person?”
The note also included the hashtags #transplantpioneer #transplantawareness #beadonor #loveneverfails. On the back of the note in rounded printing another message read, “Please let us know where her balloon has made it to, thank you.” A small heart and an email address filled the rest of the pink square paper.
Sykes searched for more information on Eberhardt. Her story came up right away – a child born in Collingwood, Ont. and diagnosed with biliary atresia. When a baby has biliary atresia, bile flow from the liver to the gallbladder is blocked. This causes the bile to be trapped inside the liver, quickly causing damage and scarring of the liver cells (cirrhosis), and eventually liver failure. Eberhardt was given a fatal prognosis. Most professionals didn’t expect her to see her third birthday.
But Eberhardt’s parents James Eberhardt and Christine Constable wouldn’t accept a hopeless prophecy. They pushed for a transplant, and their search took them to Boston, where Eberhardt received a liver transplant just before her third birthday.
At the time – 1985 – it was extremely rare for children to receive transplants. The world watched as the Eberhardt family pioneered organ transplants for the sake of their child, and in the hopes of paving the way for other children who would need organs.
Eberhardt’s life was not easy, she was plagued with infection and health issues related to a liver transplant, but she had a life.
“She was feisty,” said Constable. “Every time she tried to do something, she would get sick and end up in the hospital. She just kind of coped as best she could.”
In 2010 she was discharged from a hospital and told to sort her affairs. She needed a new liver again, but there wasn’t one available for her. As she left the hospital, a nurse caught her outside the doors to call her back. They found her a liver and performed another transplant just in time.
Eberhardt’s nickname, which she was fond of, was Alien Angel.
“She was green 90 per cent of her life. She got tattoos to play with the name,” said Constable. “An alien angel and an alien devil. The Ying and the Yang ... She embraced it to survive.”
Though Eberhardt wasn’t able to launch into a dream career, she had a fiancé and dreamt of becoming a mother one day.
On May 13, 2017, Eberhardt died in hospice at the age of 35 – her sunset.
Sykes followed through on the balloon note and reached out to Eberhardt’s family.
“Initially, I was revealing the story to them, keeping them updated,” he said. “It was really overwhelming to see the amount of love that her family has for her … what I will remember most is – even though I don’t know these people at all – for these few short days I’ve been feeling really connected with them. Even if it’s just for a short time, they maybe got a lot from that. I think I did.”
The balloon Sykes found was one of 50 released by Eberhardt’s family from Sunset Point in Collingwood, nearly 200 km from Beamsville.
They were released on April 21 – Eberhardt’s 36th birthday – at 6:30 p.m.
“It was kind of bittersweet,” said Constable. “We were celebrating the fact that she was part of our lives, but she wasn’t there anymore. And we were doing something that would create awareness, hoping something good would come of this.”
Sykes was the first to report back to the family to tell them he’d found a balloon. Since then others have emailed to say they found balloons in Woodstock, Ontario.
“Next year, we plan to release 100 balloons,” said Constable, adding they will be biodegradable, just like this year’s balloons.
The balloons and the notes – written by Eberhardt’s sister – are just the latest in a lifetime of work to spread awareness of organ and tissue donation. The Eberhardt’s are proud of Lindsay’s pioneering in the area of children’s organ transplants, and they continue to campaign and educate on behalf of organ donation and transplant in the name of her legacy.
“It’s working. The message to help others is working,” said Constable. “If you can change one person’s perspective, that’s already saved how many other people’s lives? It’s overwhelming the number of people that didn’t know Lindsay are now knowing her and sending out the message.”
Sykes has a daughter about the same age Eberhardt was when she received her first transplant. He was honoured to find the balloon.
“I don’t know if there was maybe a reason that I was the one to find the balloon and to come in contact with the family. Maybe for their own family’s closure to know it didn’t just go to waste,” said Sykes. “Maybe it’s my calling to advocate a little bit for donor awareness.”
Sykes is a registered organ donor.
“I’m grateful [Sykes] was the one to find the first balloon … We’ve made another friend, ” said Constable. “Everything happens for a reason, it doesn’t mean everything is a good reason. When the nasty stuff happens, it’s about what you do and how you react and how can you change things for the better? We’re all changing the world one person at a time.”
In Canada today, transplants are done on children as young as six weeks old.
This week, April 22 to 28, is National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Week. Canada Blood Services and other health organizations use this week to celebrate organ and tissue donation and raise awareness of the critical need for more donors across the country.
According to Canada Blood Services, approximately 4,500 Canadians are waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant and many more are waiting for tissue transplants. On average, 250 Canadians die each year waiting for a transplant.
Fewer than two percent of deaths in Canada have the potential for organ donation, according to Canada Blood Services.