Drinking E. coli-contaminated water in Walkerton over five years ago robbed Jeff Holliday of his quality of life. A kidney and pancreas transplant in London three months ago gave it back.
"I feel great," said Jeff, who lives in Walkerton with his parents, Audrey and Murray Holliday. "I was sick for so long – I just wanted it to be over."
The 39-year-old was living the typical life of a single man in May 2000, working as a courier in Kitchener and living in a townhouse with a good friend. His entire life changed when he returned home to Walkerton over the long weekend to visit his family.
"I came home because (my father) was having heart surgery," said Jeff, adding that during the weekend he spent in Walkerton, he unknowingly drank the contaminated water, but didn't immediately fall ill.
Audrey said she began feeling E. coli-related symptoms at the beginning of the following week. It wasn't until she and Murray returned home from London following Murray's surgery that they learned the water was to blame.
"When we got home, our daughter-in-law phoned and said, 'Don't drink the water'. The rest of the family told me then that they were sick too," said Audrey.
While the other Holliday family members gradually recovered from their symptoms, which included diarrhea and vomiting, Jeff continued to get worse.
"I called Mom late at night (from Kitchener) and said I don't think I'll make it through to morning," he said. "I came up here and got tested at the clinic, but they said I was fine. The doctors said just go home and drink fluids, it will pass."
Throughout the summer of 2000, Jeff's symptoms did not lessen. He suffered from diarrhea and headaches on a daily basis, and vomited frequently. A diabetic since he was a teenager, Jeff's insulin levels became difficult to control, and his health went quickly downhill.
"I had to reduce my hours at work from about 15 hours a day to five, and I couldn't go out (at night) at all," he said. "I spent most of the time in the bathroom."
To complicate the situation, Jeff's family doctor relocated to the United States, and the diabetic specialist at the hospital in Kitchener didn't want to treat him.
"As soon as she heard it was the E. coli that made him sick, she didn't want anything to do with him," said Audrey.
By October 2000, Jeff's constant diarrhea had been diagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), brought on by E. coli poisoning, and he was losing his sight. He could no longer take care of himself on his own, and was forced to move in with his parents.
"I couldn't get out of bed; I was so dehydrated. I moved back home, but I didn't think it'd be for that long at all," said Jeff.
Audrey didn't think the move would be permanent either, and continued to help Jeff pay the rent on his townhouse in Kitchener for more than a year. Suffering from IBS herself, she and Murray did what they could to look after Jeff's needs.
"Between Murray and I, we never left him alone we took him everywhere we went," she said.
As time went on, Jeff's diabetes spun out of control, and his vision worsened. He underwent six different eye surgeries, and had one retina temporarily removed so the blood behind his eye could be cleaned.
Jeff doesn't remember much of what happened in his life between the fall of 2000 and the winter of 2003.
"I needed 24/7 care, and went to the hospital (over and over again)," he said.
On Nov. 3, 2003, Jeff's kidneys failed completely, and "everything just stopped", said Audrey.
"He was swollen up like a balloon, he was bringing up, and he just looked grey," she said. "I took him to the hospital where they tested his blood, and they sent him to London right away."
At the city hospital, Jeff was put on dialysis immediately, and he and Audrey began what seemed like a never-ending routine of driving from Walkerton to London and back, three times a week.
"For the little bit I was awake, I was thinking I just wanted it all to be over," said Jeff.
"He doesn't remember the Christmas party (that year), but nobody wanted to sit next to him because they thought he was dead," said Audrey.
Finally, in February 2004, Jeff's dialysis treatments were moved to the Hanover hospital, which allowed his mother more time to work and catch up on her regular volunteer jobs.
Nevertheless, the family said they knew a kidney transplant was the only answer to Jeff's ongoing health problems.
"I know that before the transplant, I was slowly going in the other direction. I wouldn't have lasted very much longer," said Jeff.
Jeff's name was added to a transplant list this past spring. Doctors told him he needed a new kidney and pancreas, because of the damage that had been done to both organs. Jeff expected he would have to wait about a year before an organ donor would be found.
"It was three months – they called June 11 at 11 that night, and I had the surgery the next day," he said.
Audrey too, remembers the exact moment when the phone rang, announcing her son would be given a second chance at living a normal life.
"We were playing cards, and the radio said something about an accident in the London area. For some reason, I got up and turned on the car phone. An hour later, the phone rang," she said.
While the family doesn't know who the donor was, they suspect it was a 17-year-old boy who was taken off life support in London on June 11, after suffering severe head injuries in an accident a week earlier. The anonymous donor who saved Jeff's life gave his or her heart, eyes, kidneys, pancreas, and joints to several different recipients.
"I thought this transplant was a miracle," said Audrey, adding that it was difficult to celebrate with her son, knowing another family was suffering. "But it's made such a difference I can hardly believe it."
Jeff underwent a six-hour surgery in London on June 12, and two days later, he was out of bed and walking around the hospital. His recovery since then has been nothing short of miraculous.
"The vomiting has stopped, I used to have sleep apnea and that's gone, and I don't have high blood pressure anymore," said Jeff, adding his vision is also coming back and he can once again walk around the block without collapsing. "I'm still talking to the guys from work, saying I'll be back."
Although Jeff's sick leave from his Kitchener employer has stretched on for five years now, the company is still holding his job for him, and is keeping his health insurance paid.
That coverage has helped pay for many of his expensive medications, but the Holliday family has suffered financially as a result of Jeff's illness. The travelling expenses they incurred, the prescription drugs Jeff needed that weren't covered by insurance, and the effects of Audrey not being able to work for the past five years have all taken their toll.
Jeff was offered a $1,000 settlement from Crawford Adjusters, in addition to the $2,000 everyone received as compensation, but he turned down the offer and is still negotiating a settlement. After everything they've been through, said Audrey, her family deserves more.
Although still bothered by IBS, Jeff is nonetheless looking forward to the future. He hopes to go back to work in the next year or so, and wants to move out on his own again.
He also plans to contact the family of the person whose organs he received.
"I know that some caring person gave me the opportunity to get a second chance at life, and I really must thank that family and tell them how important this was to me," said Jeff. "I've got my life back."
The Kidney Foundation of Canada is holding its first-ever fundraising walk in Walkerton on Sunday, Oct. 2.
Local organizers Marg and Ron Rapp said the Be a Life Saver Walk is designed to raise money and awareness for organ donation.
Registration for the event begins at 9 a.m. at Lobies Park, with the five-kilometre walk starting at 10 a.m.
Pledge sheets are available by calling 881-2642.