How a renowned surgeon is helping children understand organ donation

January 22, 2024
Dr. Wall sits at his desk displaying his children’s book the ant who needed a transplant.

Dr. William Wall, who specialized in organ transplants, wrote a storybook that may also help children develop empathy

When Dr. William Wall retired in 2015, he could have simply hung up his scrubs and called it a career well done. After all, he’d begun his work in organ transplantation in the 1970s, when the field was still in its infancy, and seven out of eight patients who received liver transplants died in hospital. From there, he went on to establish Canada’s first successful liver transplant program at University Hospital in London, Ont., where he and his team performed nearly 2,000 liver transplants.  

However, Dr. Wall had a feeling that his work wasn’t quite finished. It took root and grew as he spent more time with his grandchildren.  

“I became convinced that youngsters could understand the concept of donation and transplantation if it was presented to them in the right way,” Dr. Wall says. “I looked for written material that would be suitable for them, for children five to 10 years of age.  

“I couldn’t find anything that was ideal and certainly not anything Canadian. I thought there was an educational need that should be met.” 

Exploring organ donation through a unique family story 

So, Dr. Wall wrote a children’s book. In the ant who needed a transplant, a family of ants goes through the challenges of dealing with the father ant’s need for a heart transplant after he becomes ill. While the story is written as a fantasy to lighten the seriousness of the subject, Dr. Wall still wanted it to portray the real human experience. 

“You could take out the ant characters and put in human characters and it could be told in the same way,” he says.  

Retired transplant surgeon Dr. William Wall wrote a storybook to help young children learn about organ donation ― and in the process develop empathy and kindness. 

Even though it is written for children, the story doesn’t shy away from revealing that a lifesaving organ transplant for one individual is made possible by the death of another. The children of the father ant realize that at the same time they are celebrating the success of their dad’s transplant, the donor’s family is grieving a terrible loss. 

But the story focuses on gratitude more than sadness, as the children come up with the idea to make a special ‘thank you’ card for the donor’s family.  

“At that point, the themes of compassion, empathy and altruism merge, and the children are firmly at the center of the story,” says Dr. Wall.

Support for schools across Canada to teach children about organ donation 

Eventually, Dr. Wall wants to see the ant who needed a transplant in homes as well as public libraries, but his immediate objective was to make it available in elementary schools throughout Canada — in order to reach large numbers of children in educational settings.  

To this end, a generous London couple, Angie and Calvin Stiller (Dr. Stiller is a transplant pioneer and a mentor to Dr. Wall), along with the Canadian Society of Transplantation, provided funds for a special print run of the books for schools. By the end of January 2024, almost 6,000 copies will have been distributed to school boards in every province and territory. 

In the fall 2023 issue of Canadian Teacher Magazine, editor Diana Mumford praised the ant who needed a transplant as a “delightful book” in which “the story is told with sensitivity to both the gravity of the situation and the age of the target audience.” 

Dr William Wall with a group of kids in a classroom with a book opened up.
Dr. Wall is bringing the story of an ant who needed a transplant to school children across Canada to teach them about the importance of organ donation.

‘Organ donation is an act of kindness that can save lives’ 

While the professional response to the book has been very gratifying, the most precious feedback Dr. Wall has received was from his grandson. He was nine years old when his father read the first draft of the book to him and his younger sister. About halfway through, his grandson looked up at his father and said, “This is a really good story.” 

Dr William Wall reading with two kids on the couch.
Dr. William Wall’s grandchildren helped inspire him to create a storybook to help teach young children about organ donation.

“The basic message of the book is that organ donation is an act of kindness that can save lives,” Dr. Wall says. “If children learn that at an early age, they will hopefully grow up with a meaningful sense of the importance of organ donation in our society, and countless lives will be saved as a result.” 

Further information about the book, including a book trailer, is available here. Looking for even more resources to help children learn about organ donation? Check out our educational portal. Together, we are Canada’s Lifeline

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