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After son's death, Quebec mother raises awareness about organ donation

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A Quebec mother who lost her 11-year-old son to a rare condition hopes to encourage parents to have important conversations about organ and tissue donation.

Jennifer Dwyer said she keeps her youngest son close, in a locket that holds his thumbprint and some of his ashes.

"I just take it when I'm sad or need comfort," she said.

Brayden Odell died just over two years ago, a shock that hasn't disappeared, because his death came without warning.

"I go to bed at night, I think of it -- I wake up in the morning, I think of it," said Dwyer.

Brayden was a healthy, active boy who loved sports, especially hockey.

"He was amazing. Such a caring boy, who had a heart of gold, would help anyone and everyone.

On his father's birthday in 2021, Brayden went skating with his family and friends. Later at home, he complained of a bad headache.

"He asked me for Tylenol, so I went to my cabinet, and I noticed, which I've never seen, he had literally water pouring out of his eyes like a fountain, and he was hot like fire. I just held on to him and was like, 'Bray are you alright?' And he was starting to get confused," she said.

Brayden slipped into a coma. He was rushed to hospital in their home in the Laurentians before he was transferred to Ste-Justine Hospital in Montreal.

There, they learned he had suffered a ruptured arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, in his brain.

It's a rare condition, with fewer than 1,000 cases per year in Canada.

Doctors performed emergency surgery, but a few days later, he went into cardiac arrest -- twice.

"They were at the end of their ropes. They had nothing they could do to save our little boy," said Dwyer.

Brayden Odell suffered a ruptured arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, in his brain. (photo: Jennifer Dwyer)In their darkest hour, Dwyer and her husband opted to let Brayden become a medical donor.

His grandfather was a double lung transplant recipient, so they'd already spoken to their children about organ and tissue donation.

"Being the giver he is, it was automatic that my husband and I that night at the hospital were like, 'We want to donate his organs,'" she said.

Brayden's eyes were donated, helping four different people.

Dr. Marc Germain with Hema-Quebec said children can donate a number of tissues and valves, including corneas.

There are about 80 potential pediatric tissue donors each year in Quebec. About one in four become donors, mostly to other children.

"There's a strong need for those types of tissues, and they are in high demand and difficult to obtain because, again, quite fortunately, there aren't that many deaths happening in children," said Germain.

The Quebec Liberals are trying to pass a bill establishing a presumption of organ and tissue donation. This means everyone would be a de facto organ donor when they die unless they've already opted out.

Health Minister Christian Dube said it's an important bill the government will review in the fall.

Germain said organ and tissue donation is something families should discuss – even with children.

"I don't think it's a conversation that should be avoided, and if it's done in advance, then it will better prepare parents for making that decision if the time comes," he said.

Brayden's family keeps busy raising awareness for organ and tissue donation and fundraising for vascular research.

Dwyer said she hopes her son's story will encourage more families to discuss death and their wishes.

"It's the gift that keeps giving. It's a beautiful thing," she said. "Sign your card. It's so important."  

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