"You always knew there was something very special about her"

By Maria Mercedes Lara
February 22, 2016 02:40 PM

When Peter Brouwer learned that he would need a liver transplant, he didn’t think he’d find a donor in the hockey mom he had sat next to at his 9-year-old son Braedon’s games for the past three years.

Nearly six years ago, the Grimsby, Canada, father-of-two was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare disease that affects the body’s bile ducts and can eventually lead to serious liver damage.

Last February, Peter and his wife Melissa were told that he would need to look into getting on a liver transplant list after his bile ducts had hardened and scarred so severely that they could not be manually drained by a doctor.

However, while they signed up for a deceased organ donor list, the Brouwers were told that the likelihood of them getting a liver transplant soon was unlikely.

“To get a deceased donor you have to pretty much be on your deathbed,” Peter tells PEOPLE. “So you’re only chance of recovery is to get a live liver donor.

“When that came out, you know, we always realized that but when the doctor says that to you face-to-face is when it really, really hits home.”

At first Peter, who is an O-positive blood type, had thought that he had found a potential donor in a close friend who lived in Vancouver. However, after undergoing a rigorous amount of testing, doctors at Toronto General Hospital called off the surgery a little more than two weeks before the scheduled date due to a minor issue with the donor. It was a major blow to the Brouwers.

When Peter first found out about his condition, he didn’t want to go public with their wider social group because he wanted to keep living “a normal life” and continue working full-time and coaching his kids’ teams. However, after their transplant was canceled, Peter says it “really hit home” that he needed to get on social media and launch a public search on Facebook for a live liver donor.

It turns out, he didn’t have to look very far. While Peter says “many, many people stepped up” to volunteer to be a donor after Melissa posted about their search on Facebook, it wasn’t until a few days later after his condition had gone through the parent grapevine in his son’s hockey travel team that he found the woman who eventually give him her liver.

“I had no idea that Peter was ill,” Vanessa Smith of St. Catharines, Canada, tells PEOPLE. The mother-of-six, who hadn’t seen Melissa’s Facebook post, found out that Peter needed a transplant after two fellow hockey moms told her about his condition.

“At that point I told the two of them, ‘Oh, I’m type O blood, I’ll donate to him,’ and that’s when I walked out and told Melissa the same thing,” Smith, 35, says. “She looked at me like I was a little crazy.”

Peter says Melissa tried to put her off the idea.

“Melissa just kind of looked at her and was just like, no, because you’ve got young children,” he says. “You can’t sacrifice your life. She said, ‘Nope, it’s something that I’m going to do.’ ”

The very next day, Smith printed out the forms to apply to become a transplant and submitted them to Toronto General Hospital with the name Peter Brouwer as the intended recipient.

Smith knows that her act of kindness might be surprising to some, especially since both she and Peter agree that they weren’t exactly close friends when she signed up to become a donor.

“You always knew there was something very special about her,” Peter says. “Because we’d go to a hockey or lacrosse tournament and just the way she treated all the kids, treated others, you could tell she was a very, very special person.”

Melissa agrees, telling a story that Smith’s mother told her about her giving away a brand-new pair of Nike shoes to a friend when she was younger because her friend had never had a pair of Nikes before.

“It’s just the kind of person she is,” says Melissa. “She would help anybody.”

“Peter was the recipient of my liver because he was the first person I’ve known that needed a liver,” Smith says. “I would have donated to anybody in need. That’s just who I am as a person.”

Smith also adds that no one in her family tried to put her off the idea, either.

“I remember asking my mother if she would stay at my house if I was a match and she said, ‘Yes, of course,’ ” Smith explains. “There wasn’t any ‘Are you sure about this’ or anybody trying to talk me out of it. They’ve known me for 35 years, so they know that if I’ve made my mind up about something then there’s no changing it.”

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When she told her kids about the donation, her son Ari, 9, who plays on Braedon’s team, said he thought it was “pretty cool.”

Ari Steenhuis and Braedon Brouwer

“My 11-year-old son Tye had the strangest funniest little grin on his face and said, ‘My mom’s going to die a hero.’ I looked at my 15-year-old daughter Jaida and we just burst out laughing with each other. She told Tye, ‘Mom’s not going to die during surgery,’ and that was when Tye said, ‘I know, but when she does die, she will die a hero.’ ”

“I did tell him that I’m not a hero,” Smith adds. “I’m just helping somebody that needs help. That’s always been a huge rule in our home. If somebody asks you for help, no matter where you are, if you can help, then you help!”

Peter’s transplant occurred on Jan. 11 and both he and Smith have been slowly recovering.

“I can feel my mental capacity, I can feel my sharpness, I can feel my health coming back,” says Peter. “Things like that it’s like holy cow, it’s a different life.”

For her part, Smith’s recovery has also been incredibly smooth, aside from going “through bouts of tiredness.”

“My recovery has been awesome,” she says. “I don’t think I could have asked for a better recovery. I had prepared myself to feel horrible, but at the same time, tried to convince myself that I wouldn’t. I had barely any pain after the surgery – I chalk that up to the fact that I have felt many contractions!”

Smith has also seen an outpouring of support from her community. One friend organized a program to have people cook and deliver dinners to Smith and her family while she was recovering. Her two older sons’ hockey teams also donated hundreds of dollars in gift cards to local restaurants.

“The support was actually very overwhelming for me,” Smith says. “It made me cry.”

Still, not everyone has been positive, especially after news of Smith’s donation made the local news.

“I’ve received a lot of backlash for doing what I did. A lot of ‘You have 6 children, you must be crazy’ or ‘Why would you risk your life when you have 6 children,’ ” Smith says. “I never once felt like I risked my life.

“People can judge me all they want for how I helped, they can have their opinions and tear me to shreds on social media – my 15-year-old daughter tells me what’s said,” she continues. “In my heart, I know I did the right thing and I don’t regret it.”

Now that Peter is on the road to recovery following his transplant, the Brouwers are focused on spreading the message about organ donation. Canada, like the United States, has an opt-in organ donation system, meaning people have to physically sign up to become an organ donor once they pass away.

Madelyn and Braedon Brouwer

“We’ve just really been urging people to please, have that conversation at home,” Melissa says. “What are your wishes if you were to pass today or pass whenever? What are your wishes? Take two minutes [to discuss it].

“You never know who in your life might need an organ,” she continues. “This could happen to anybody and I would hate for anybody to be in the same situation as us, having to go out and find their own organ. But if everybody signed up then we wouldn’t have this problem.”

Meanwhile, Smith is just hoping that her story will inspire people to be a little bit more generous to one another.

“To me, it’s something we should all be willing to do,” Smith says. “I’m not saying everybody needs to go and donate an organ – I’m saying people need to be more willing to help others. Especially in a time when we’re plagued with so much negativity – early deaths, homeless people, mentally ill people, war-torn families, refugees people just need to be willing to help. In whatever way they can.”

To sign up to become an organ donor, visit organdonor.gov (for the United States) or beadonor.ca (for Canada).