Family launches new scholarship to say thanks for giving father more time

The U of A’s Ex-VIvo Organ Support System gave Doug Hallett almost seven more years with his family. Now, they’re giving back.

Ryan O'Byrne - 23 April 2021

Doug Hallett loved working with his hands, whether it was wrenching on cars in his garage or coming up with novel inventions at his kitchen table.

“He was very invested in these fun solutions and problem solving, like better ways to lubricate a transmission. I found that inspiring,” Doug’s son, Tyler, says. “That's just the person he was. He was always around if you needed help, and he loved solving problems, no matter what it was.”

Doug also had a mischievous sense of humour. His sister Mary-Ann Kostiuk, who is awaiting a double-lung transplant, recalls the Christmas gift he left her right before he passed away, “celebrating” their shared condition.

“He gave me a pendant with a picture of a pair of lungs,” she says with a laugh. “I could just hear Doug's voice in my head saying, ‘Merry Christmas, I got you new airbags!’”

“He always called lungs ‘airbags.’ And he always called me ‘bag lady,’” she says.

Doug passed away in December 2019, just before Christmas. Like Mary-Ann, Doug had a rare genetic condition that affected his lungs, called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. Seven years earlier, he had received a double lung transplant at the University of Alberta Hospital, made possible by the U of A’s Ex-Vivo Organ Support System (EVOSS). The treatment he received at the U of A Hospital and the creative solution presented by the EVOSS extended his life and inspired his family to create the Doug Hallett Graduate Scholarship in Medicine.

“He loved the time that the transplant and the EVOSS gave him to spend with his family,” Tyler says. “Prior to having the transplant, he was feeling so rough that he wasn't able to do a lot of the things that he loved. So the transplant program had a humongous impact on him—he always talked very highly of it and the people that he encountered there.”

“After he passed away, we thought this scholarship might be a good way to bring things full circle and help him live on in a way, while supporting a program that he was very excited about.”

“He was an incredibly loving and supportive father, brother, uncle, great-uncle and son,” Mary-Ann says. “His commitment to those he loved was always known and appreciated beyond words. Our family is forever grateful for the extra time and the memories that we were able to make and enjoy.”

The AAT problem

Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is a genetic condition that affects the lungs and liver. Alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) is a protein made in the liver that protects lungs from infections and irritants. However, the condition prevents AAT from reaching the lungs properly, causing them to become more susceptible to infection and damage from irritants such as smoke. This can lead to breathing problems or serious issues such as chronic obstructive pulmonary obstructive disease.

“The condition can present itself as being completely liver-based—where people develop cirrhosis of the liver without even having had a drink in their life—or it can be just lung-related, or it can be both,” says Mary-Ann, who, like her brother, also suffers from AAT deficiency.

Tyler recalls how much his father’s condition impacted his life before his transplant.

“I remember there were times when he would get so frustrated because he couldn't even tie his shoes without getting winded, and that was such a far cry from who he was as a person,” he says. “He loved working on cars and doing physical things and he didn't like being limited by anything. So it was definitely hard to watch when he couldn't do any of the things that he wanted to do.”

The EVOSS solution

There is no cure for AAT deficiency. One treatment option is a double-lung transplant, something Mary-Ann hopes to undergo soon. When Doug received his double-lung transplant in the spring of 2013, he was one of the first people in the world to receive lungs kept alive through the Ex-Vivo Organ Support System (EVOSS), developed at the U of A by Darren Freed and Jayan Nagendran. Freed and Nagendran are members of the Alberta Transplant Institute, a multidisciplinary, virtual institute focused on improving transplantation and donation in Alberta and supporting cutting-edge research, improvements in patient care, education and advocacy.

The EVOSS mimics the natural process of breathing by constantly supplying donated lungs with blood and oxygen and keeps them warm in a device outside of the body. This process helps expand the window of time to get a donated organ into a patient and reduce organ damage, which is one of the largest issues with transplantation. Lungs can be kept up to eight hours on ice, but up to 48 hours using the EVOSS. Not only does this allow for donated organs from a wider area to be used, it also allows for them to be assessed and repaired, increasing the number of viable organs available.

In a 2013 interview with CBC, Doug attributed his relatively short 18-day recovery from his transplant procedure to the EVOSS. Tyler says Doug was back on his feet helping people in his community almost immediately.

“The guy didn't like resting; he was always out there helping people. So I think it had a compounding effect because he was given all these additional years to not just live his life and do what he wanted to do with it, but also help his community,” he says.

“I can't tell you how many stories that I heard from people saying, ‘I was snowed in and I couldn’t move anything, then your just dad showed up and I hadn't even called him. And he just plowed our entire driveway.’”

“The transplant allowed him to do so much more of that,” Tyler says. “The U of A transplant program was amazing for our family, and it will continue to be with Mary-Ann too. I hope it continues to impact many other people in the same way.”

The Doug Hallett Graduate Scholarship in Medicine

After his father passed away, Tyler says the family came together to consider what Doug would have wanted them to do with his estate. Developing a scholarship for students focused on lung transplant research seemed like a natural choice.

“We wanted this to be a way he could continue to help,“ Tyler says. “This time, though, he is helping students who may not otherwise have had the opportunity, or that may need that extra bit of scholarship money to get through their program.”

The Doug Hallett Graduate Scholarship in Medicine will provide $2,000 annually to full- or part-time students doing research in transplantation and registered in a masters or doctoral program in the Department of Medicine. Preference will be given to a student who has a Doctor of Medicine degree, and/or is conducting research in the area of lung transplantation and/or ex-vivo perfusion.

The scholarship officially opened at the beginning of April, which is Be a Donor Month in Alberta. National Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness week is April 18 - 24. For more information about organ and tissue donation in Alberta, visit Alberta’s Health Services’ Organ, Tissue and Eye Donation page.