A Gift of Hope
From the moment Johanne and Michael Wagner met their daughters in November 2012, they feared the girls would die. At 18 months and barely four kilograms each, the Vietnamese twins they’d adopted were clearly very sick. After holding them, Johanne and Michael wandered the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, devastated. They bought matching red and black jars: one to hold Binh’s ashes and one to hold Phuoc’s. They wanted to show their new daughters love, but worried there wasn’t much time.
Soon after the Wagners returned home to Kingston, Ont., with the twins, genetic testing confirmed that both girls had Alagille syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes bile to build up in the liver, severely reducing the organ’s ability to eliminate waste from the bloodstream. By December 2014, Binh and Phuoc desperately needed liver transplants.
While Johanne and Michael were waiting to discover if either or both of them would be a match, they launched a Facebook campaign to search for donors. In January, Michael, a major with the Canadian Armed Forces, learned he could donate—but only to one child. (While part of the liver is donated and will grow back, a person can safely undergo the procedure only once.) Doctors decided Michael’s liver would go to Phuoc, who needed it more urgently.
After the Wagners posted the bittersweet news on their Facebook page, the campaign went viral. Though the couple insisted they weren’t forced to choose between daughters, relying instead on their doctors’ advice, their situation struck many as a medical Sophie’s Choice. Hundreds of potential donors filled out applications. In February 2015, Michael donated to Phuoc, and in April the Toronto General Hospital chose an anonymous donor for Binh.
At a press conference that month, Johanne and Michael tearfully thanked Binh’s donor, whose identity, they believed, would stay a secret. That is, until about a month later, when a stranger posted the donor’s name on the Wagners’ Facebook campaign page for no apparent reason.
Johanne deleted the comment, but the way the name was spelled stuck with her: K-R-I-S—not Chris. Kris Chung. Overcome by curiosity, she searched his name on Facebook. That’s how she learned that the donor was a 19-year-old English literature student at the Royal Military College of Canada, a five-minute drive from her home. Determined not to breach Chung’s privacy, Johanne changed her routine, and avoided the downtown core, worried about an accidental run-in. But she anguished over the secret. This young man shares more with my daughter than I do, she thought. So why isn’t he here?
The Wagners were allowed to send a thank-you note to the donor. During her daily runs that summer, Johanne would fret over what to write; she often broke down in tears. In the end, she decided her gratitude couldn’t be captured in words. Thank you is too easy to say, she thought. We say it all the time. Thanks for the coffee. Thanks for the bill. Thanks. Thanks. Thanks. In the end, she wrote in her note that she’d make sure Binh treasured his gift. She sent the card in September. Typically, donors send an anonymous reply, but Johanne was met with silence.
With five biological kids and four adopted ones, family is the centre of Johanne’s orbit. But by October, still not having heard from the donor, she couldn’t shake the feeling that hers was incomplete. Michael supported her but took a more practical stance. If the donor wanted to stay unnamed, they couldn’t do much. Then, in February 2016, Johanne received a card—though, to her dismay, the donor didn’t divulge his identity.
For his part, Chung says that he waited to reply because he knew that if he never met Binh, then what he wrote in his note would have to last a lifetime. His card thanked Johanne and Michael for what they’d done for the twins and assured Binh he’d never regret the transplant. He added that he hoped she had a fulfilling life, marked by her own desire to give back.
Chung, now 21, had filled out the donor form online moments after reading about the Wagners’ story in the news. He felt moved by their selflessness and was struck with the thought that he, by comparison, hadn’t done much to contribute to his community. He wanted to change that—and seeing Michael in his uniform cinched it. Humble and spotlight-averse, Chung barely told anyone his plan pre-surgery—not his parents, friends or professors. He was disappointed when he learned he was the second choice—until the chosen donor cancelled the night before the surgery. Chung got the call and instantly said yes.
During the months that followed the surgeries, Chung would see posts from the Wagners’ campaign page in his Facebook feed. Johanne used them to share her thoughts on creating a legacy for her daughters through charitable work. Why not use the attention to do good in Vietnam? (In January 2016, she also started working as the Vietnam and U.S. adoption program co-ordinator for TDH Ontario.) Chung, who “liked” the posts on Binh’s health, was also drawn to the idea that he could keep making a difference. He’d caught the goodwill bug.