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Connected though life and death - a heart transplant recipient meets her donor’s family

In October 2020, Maple Ridge resident Tommy Picco died from drug toxicity. He was a registered organ donor and saved four people, including Lindsay Ma.
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Lindsay Ma, second from left, met the family of her donor Tommy Picco in April 2023.

​Lindsay Ma was so nervous as she walked up to Debbie Picco’s door in Pitt Meadows that day last April. Though they had exchanged letters and emails for several months already, Lindsay had no idea what to expect at their first face-to-face meeting.

“The moment Debbie opened the door she hugged me. It was like I had known her my whole life, like an old friend,” Lindsay recalls. “That night, my husband and I met her husband, her daughter, her daughter’s husband and their two sons. Grandma joined in on Facetime."

There was a lot of laughter and joy at dinner that night, though it was mixed with tears and emotion, especially when Debbie got out a stethoscope to listen to Lindsay’s heart. Debbie’s son Tommy’s heart now beats inside Lindsay’s chest.

“I could hardly speak the whole evening,” says Debbie, a retired Registered Nurse. “I am so thankful and privileged to know Lindsay and her family. Tommy lives on, and so does Lindsay, and it’s a very different feeling than what I have for anyone else.”

A “people” person from childhood
From a young age, Tommy seemed to have no fear and was always taking risks. His mom describes him as a “rascal” who constantly looked out for other people, especially the underdog, stepping in to help whenever he could. Tommy loved socializing and always wanted to be around others, whether in large groups or small. His fun and sensitive personality brought lots of different people into his world.

“At his Grade 7 leaving ceremony, there is a picture of him surrounded by girls and another picture of his teacher playfully throttling him,” laughs Debbie. “I think those photos exemplified the rest of his life. He was very protective of women and we are still in contact with some of his girlfriends to this day.”


Tommy enjoyed sports, but excelled at lacrosse. He also took up boxing, which is where he got his nickname “Tommy Gun,” borrowed from another boxer named “Gun” with a similar fighting style. Debbie says Tommy had the name tattooed across his chest, just one of several works of art inked on his body.

“He did love his tattoos, and I laugh when I think of one of his girlfriend’s names tattooed over his heart…because he had several other girlfriends after that!”

Fishing was another one of Tommy’s passions. One of his favourite fishing spots was in Fernie, where both Debbie and her husband Don were raised. This is also where the family spread Tommy’s ashes.

“One of my favourite memories of Tommy was when I was keeping him company while he was fishing along the Elk River. Instead of a fish, he caught a duck! We laughed for ages once it was unhooked.”

Life with a broken heart
Lindsay also loved sports and participated in various activities through her childhood. She was always healthy, but in her early 20s, she started feeling unusually tired and run-down. When she went to the doctor, he found Lindsay had an irregular heartbeat and sent her to the hospital. Initially, the triage nurse thought her heart sounded fine, but Lindsay didn’t want to leave without answers.

The next day, she was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition that affects the main pumping chamber of the heart. It thickens the heart muscles of the left ventricle, making it difficult for the heart to pump blood. Within days, Lindsay had a defibrillator implanted to keep her heart rhythm regular. Her condition was stable for a few years, until she was pregnant and close to her delivery date. She had to be induced a week early.

“A week after Brayden arrived, I had emergency heart surgery. My heart was failing,” remarks Lindsay. “Brayden grew up knowing I was sick. When he was two, my defibrillator went off and I passed out. He called 9-1-1. When the paramedics got there, they couldn’t get in because there was a chain on the door, but Brayden told them to go through the garage door, giving them the code to the lock.”

Lindsay eventually got too sick to even walk or perform most daily tasks. Her heart function kept deteriorating and she was put on the waitlist for a new heart. She was told she only had three months to live, but incredibly, a week later, she got the call. A new heart was available. Lindsay recovered quickly and her life returned to normal.

But seven years later, she started rejecting the heart. Doctors told her she would need another heart transplant.

“I wasn’t having any symptoms and I was still playing baseball,” she says. “But the angiogram showed all my arteries were blocked. I was really emotional the second time and I didn’t know how I could get through this again.”

Spiralling into pain and addiction
Tommy’s medical issues also started when he was in his early 20s. He herniated a disk while helping a friend break up a cement pad, which led to surgery that didn’t work and left him in a lot of pain. A doctor prescribed oxycontin. A few years later, Tommy was in a bad car crash, making the pain even worse.

“He kept trying to chase the pain and the prescription analgesics gradually turned into illicit substances,” Debbie explains. “His third back surgery caused constant nerve pain, a limp, and muscle-wasting in his calf. Tommy said to me one day that he didn’t know how long he could go on like that. He was constantly in pain, fighting addiction, unable to work or have a house or family. He had several periods of recovery, but the addiction was a constant battle.”

In the fall of 2020, after a few weeks out of touch with his family, Tommy called his mom. He was still in Maple Ridge and Debbie went to meet him for a visit. That would turn out to be the last time they spoke.

A few days later, Debbie and Don had just arrived in Castlegar to visit family when Tommy’s girlfriend sent a text message. Tommy was given an unknown substance and was in a coma in Ridge Meadows Hospital.

“Early the next morning, we left Castlegar and drove back to Maple Ridge, going straight to the hospital. Tommy was on a respirator, non-responsive. To see him like that was heartbreaking.”

When they were told Tommy had registered as an organ donor, Debbie says they weren’t surprised because he was such a giving person.

“I am so proud that he registered as a donor, and that, even after 15 years of substance use, he could make such a difference by giving life to four people, I hold on to that.” 

Getting the call
On October 13, 2020, exactly eight years after receiving her first gift of life, Lindsay’s phone rang again. Her third chance at life had come. Recovery was slower this time, and there were some serious complications, but she just kept going and was, once again, able to get back to life.

 A year later, Lindsay got another phone call. It was the social worker at BC Transplant saying he had received a letter from her donor’s family.

“I read the letter a million times, I cried a million times,” Lindsay comments. “There were dragonflies on the card and I got a tattoo with dragonflies taken from the card. I carry the letter around in my purse with me to this day.”

Lindsay knew she had to write back. She and her donor family exchanged a few anonymous letters. Meanwhile, she also gave her permission to BC Transplant for direct contact with her donor family.

At the same time, Debbie had given her permission for direct contact with Tommy’s organ recipients.

BC Transplant supports recipients and donor families who want to move beyond anonymous communication to direct contact, such as a face-to-face meeting or emails, once a year has passed since the donation. Both sides must exchange anonymous written correspondence at least once and independently request direct contact.

“I think we would have been good friends.”

 Lindsay and Debbie started emailing each other. Now, Lindsay’s donor had a name, a face, and a story. She learned everything she could about Tommy, even finding his obituary in the local paper and putting that up on her fridge. As Debbie shared more about her son, Lindsay felt even more connected to Tommy. Debbie says the two of them are so alike, both outgoing, happy and tattooed, even the same laugh.

“We both have a loud, boisterous laugh,” Lindsay says with a smile. “On his memorial Facebook page, there is a video of him laughing at his friend, and it gives me so much joy to listen to that as it is such a contagious laugh. I would have loved to have met him in real life.”

Debbie feels so much pride and joy knowing Tommy’s last act of selflessness has transformed so many lives. She continues his legacy of giving by volunteering for Maple Ridge Street Outreach Society.

“I think it was important for me to step into what had been Tommy's life to get to know him better and to fight for his community. Many of his friends that I meet say, ‘You’re Tommy Gun’s mom!’”

Debbie also shares Tommy’s story of organ donation whenever she can, which has encouraged many people to register as organ donors.

She adds, “I think Tommy would be proud of what he did, and I also want them to know how proud we are of Tommy.”

Lindsay wrote to the family of her first donor and never heard back. But she says she just felt it was going to be different the second time around.

“Debbie and her family are family to me. Now that I know who Tommy was, I sometimes lay there with my hand on my heart and say, ‘Tommy, it’s me and you. I’ll take care of you and you’ll take care of me.’”


BC Transplant has a process in place to facilitate correspondence between transplant recipients and donor families. Correspondence is anonymous to maintain privacy and confidentiality, but recipients and donor family members can choose to move beyond anonymous correspondence to direct contact. More information for transplant recipients and donor families is available on our website.

There are more than 500 people in B.C. currently awaiting their second chance at life. Are you a registered organ donor? It only takes two minutes and one organ donor can save up to eight lives. Register today.
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