Ray Jonasson celebrates his birthday twice a year; one his actual day of birth, the other his rebirth.
The former North York resident was a seemingly healthy competitive runner when he collapsed at the finish line of the Ancaster Old Mill five kilometre race in 1996 at age 39.
As he had just completed another race three days prior without incident, the seasoned masters runner figured he was coming down with the flu and brushed off the episode.
But as time wore on and Jonasson still felt sluggish, he decided to visit the doctor. Blood tests showed he was suffering from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a liver disease which causes inflammation, scarring and destruction of the bile ducts inside and outside of the liver. The only cure is a transplant.
Doctors told him to expect to be on the transplant list in three to five years, but he remained healthy enough to stay off the list for 12, until an infection in 2008. It took two and a half years to find a donor.
Jonasson had stopped for lunch and had a Harvey’s hamburger in his hand when he got the call on July 13, 2011, saying he would be going under the knife at 8 p.m. that night at a London hospital. The transplant was later postponed until the following morning and Jonasson spent just under two weeks in hospital recovering.
He considers July 14 his “rebirthday”, almost a month to the day following his real birth date of June 13.
“The nurse who admitted me into ICU on the 13th said my eyes were white again after the transplant,” he recalled. “I was yellow before then.”
There was a time, not long before he got the call saying a donor had been found, when Jonasson thought he would end up being a donor for someone in need.
“I was in the hospital two times in nine days for bleeding,” he said. “I informed my transplant co-ordinator I would likely be kept in the hospital and would most likely be a donor as my time was up. I thought someone was going to have a damn good heart. And I was OK with that situation.”
Sixteen years after Jonasson last laced up his shoes for a 800m event, he’ll be hitting the pavement Sunday, Feb. 24 at York University’s Track and Field Centre for the Ontario Masters competition, where he hopes to run in under three minutes.
The two-time 800m age champion with the Ontario Masters said he’s not out to win, just to partake.
“I won’t be at the front of the pack anymore,” he said. “I want to let people know (disease) can happen, but anything is possible. I want to bring awareness to organ donation. People don’t want to face their own mortality. What better legacy can you leave than the gift of life?”
The 56-year-old said the one thing that kept him going all those years ago was his desire to attend his daughter Elizabeth’s university graduation. This May he’ll be heading to California to watch her receive her MBA.
As of Thursday, Feb. 21, 198 people are on the waiting list for a liver transplant in Ontario.
For donor registration visit www.beadonor.ca