Mark Rievaj was only 10 years old when his father passed away, so when he grew up to have children of his own – Anika (13), Seth (10), Naomi (8) and Meghan (6) – he wondered if they would be fortunate enough to have a father longer than he did.
It was a reasonable concern as he had been living with liver disease for 20 years and feeling his body weaken over time. Little things like playing tag with his kids were challenging since he couldn’t keep up with them.
In the fall of 2017, Mark became so ill that even showering was “an exhausting chore.”
By the time he checked in at the hospital, his heart rate and blood pressure were so low that his nurse thought the machine was broken.
“I completely crashed and organs started failing left and right,” he said.
Mark was in such a dire state that he went from not even being on the waiting list for a liver to sitting at the very top of the national transplant list.
He was airlifted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) in Calgary and later taken by ambulance to Edmonton, where his wife Michelle said she was told to “gather up our family and get ready to say goodbye.”
Hours after what she believed was the last conversation she and Mark would hold – before she even had the chance to tell her children that their daddy was on life support and about to leave them – another family faced their own inconceivable loss.
With a donor liver available, Mark’s next battle was to survive long enough for the organ to arrive.
He did, and received his new liver on December 7th – the day before Seth would turn nine.
The family celebrated Seth’s birthday before Mark’s transplant “because we didn’t even know if my dad would live,” Seth said. So the Rievajs brought the party to the ICU, decorating Seth’s Dairy Queen cake with a flashing red bike light since they weren’t allowed to light candles in the hospital.
“When he was in the ICU, I didn’t know what was going on. I knew that dad could have died at any time but we never made a super-big kid deal out of it,” Seth said. “We knew that our dad might not live but we were pretty sure that he would pretty much because of his attitude in the ICU.”
Now – a year and a half later – Seth contemplated a different issue: whether he could beat his father in a race.
When Mark suggested that Seth would win, his son said: “I’m not sure. You definitely got a lot stronger.”
His daughter Anika knows she can out-sprint her father but said he’d catch her if they ran long enough.
“It’s better than it was beforehand,” she said. “He never really was as healthy as he is now – as far as I’ve known him – so it’s great to have him and be able to do stuff.”
Mark is beyond thrilled to be able to engage with his kids at their level rather than having them slow down to accommodate him.
“Just having that ability to run with my kids and go for a bike ride with them and not be in pain and that sort of thing has been huge,” he said. “Looking forward to the future knowing the different things that we can do as a family and not having to worry about my health as being the weakest link that you’re planning towards has been huge.”
He’s also overjoyed to have a body that can run without agony and bike without exhaustion.
“Exercise and doing sport is just a celebration of being able to move,” he said.
After his transplant, he said his “main job of the day” was to work out in the hospital physio room that was solely for transplant patients.
“Every one of those people should have been dead,” he said.
But, like him, they’d been given a second chance to stay in their bodies and start a new life.
As Mark built his strength back up and became fitter than he had been in years, he was amazed by his rejuvenated body that kept doing everything he asked of it, despite a hernia and a pacemaker that he said are souvenirs from his hospital stay.
“I said yes to a lot of things this past year because for years I couldn’t… Just being healthy again unlocked all the things I wanted to do and could do,” he said, adding that he enjoys challenging himself and reflecting on how far he’s come since his hospital days.
That contrast might have been at its peak last weekend, when he and Anika competed in a triathlon at Wasa Lake, running, biking and swimming their fastest.
Putting the lessons he learned from his own father into practice, Mark said: “I’ve been just cognizant of spending time with family and making sure I was actually living out my priorities… and just doing things with kids and getting into their world as much as possible.”