On a quiet night in January 2022, Angela Tomkinson found herself recording her husband James sitting in front of the drum kit he’d finally set up in their garage. 

The couple had always dreamed of moving to the Maritimes. Their new home was a peaceful spot in Economy overlooking the Minas Basin. James’ first love was music, and he relished having the time to get back into it.

Recalling her husband’s joy, and the recording that preserved that moment in time, Tomkinson smiles.

“He was just banging away. Not a care in the world. And I mean, everything echoes out here on the bay. So, I thought, ‘Oh, the neighbours are going to hear you,’” Tomkinson, 41, said in an interview.

“Him banging on his drums or at the helm of our boat. That is where I see him.”

On March 27, 2022, James, 46, suffered a catastrophic stroke. He died just six days later, on April 2. 

It was five days before his 47th birthday and not even a year into the realization of their dream of starting a new life in Nova Scotia. 

But James would leave behind more than his family, friends, and memories. He continued to touch other people’s lives even in death.

A laughing woman wearing a faded Santa hat and an EMS emergency jacket sits on the lap of a smiling man wearing an EMS ball cap inside an office.
Angela and James Tomkinson Credit: Contributed

‘Let’s enjoy life while we still can’ 

In 2021 the Tomkinsons quit their dispatch jobs with Toronto Paramedic Services to pursue their longtime dream of moving to Nova Scotia.

Shortly after a virtual viewing, they bought their house in Economy, sold their Ontario home, packed up their two kids and their dogs, and made the journey without regret.

“The whole purpose of it was just to slow down, enjoy more time as a family. Like, let’s enjoy life while we still can,” Tomkinson said. 

The couple were in Nova Scotia for just eight months when James suffered his stroke. Tomkinson said there were no discernable signs or symptoms leading up to the event. 

“There was a brief period where we thought that he might be able to recover. And about a day and a half after his stroke, I was told that he wouldn’t have any meaningful recovery,” Tomkinson said. 

“Working in EMS, he and I both knew what that meant. We had talked openly about what we would do if something like this happened, because that’s the industry that we worked in. It wasn’t a taboo topic that a lot of people avoid talking about.”

What came next was what James would’ve wanted as the couple had discussed organ donation many times.

As difficult as the conversation was, Tomkinson wanted to make sure their children, 10 and 13 at the time, were OK with the decision to donate James’ organs. Knowing their father, they were immediately onboard. 

‘How many people can dad save’

“He was a helper by nature. It was his job, it was who he was. He would give you the shirt off his back. It was just a no-brainer that it was something he would do in a heartbeat. I knew that and the kids knew that,” Tomkinson said.

“The only good that could come out of this was organ donation, was helping so that other families didn’t have to go through what we’re going through. Knowing there is a legacy for him, above our children, above the things that we did and he did in his life, that is really special.”

A social worker was brought in to sit with her children while she discussed details with the organ donation coordinator in another room. But her daughter and son insisted on participating.

“They said, ‘Well, can we talk to her too? We want to know how many people dad can save.’ My kids are so resilient and they’re just amazing,” she said.

It was determined that James could donate both kidneys, tissues, and the long bones from his arms and legs. 

The kidney donation occurred immediately that day. Tomkinson received a phone call informing her that it was successfully underway. Later that night, she received another call letting her know that James’ tissues were harvested. She described the communication with the team as “amazing.”

“My husband was a drummer, so we joked about the long bones in his arms and that someday someone might find themselves tapping along or drumming along and not know why,” Tomkinson said.

“He had a big full life. We did a lot of adventuring. The photos and videos we have are like 50 years smashed into 16.”

Logan Boulet Effect

Following James’ sudden death and organ donation last year, Tomkinson discovered that his birthday, April 7, was also Green Shirt Day in Canada.

“I didn’t know it existed until after James died last year. We were living in Ontario and the whole country followed the Humboldt Broncos tragedy very closely,” she said. “It really hit home for us. It hit home for me. I had a brother that grew up playing Junior A hockey.”

Green Shirt Day honours the “Logan Boulet Effect” that occurred in the aftermath of the April 6, 2018 Humboldt Broncos bus crash. Of the 29 passengers, 16 lost their lives. 

A smiling young man in a white, green and yellow Humboldt Broncos hockey jersey holds a hockey stick and smiles at the camera.
Logan Boulet. Credit: Green Shirt Day

Logan Boulet, 21, succumbed to his injuries on April 7, 2018. His parents donated his organs, a decision that saved six lives. They made the decision because their son had told them he was registering as an organ donor because he’d been inspired by coach and mentor Ric Suggit. 

Suggit died on June 27, 2017. He was also an organ donor and saved six lives. 

The Green Shirt Day website notes that In the days and weeks that followed the young hockey player’s organ donation, an estimated 150,000 people registered to become organ donors. 

“To date, this is the largest number of Canadians registering to become organ donors in Canadian History due to one event — one person,” the website said.

“Green Shirt Day was created to honour, remember, and recognize all the victims and families of that fatal crash and to continue Logan’s legacy by inspiring Canadians to talk to their families and register as organ donors.”

On April 7, people are encouraged to wear green to remember the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy and to encourage people to talk about organ donation. 

Bittersweet day

Proudly sporting her long-sleeved pale green shirt featuring the words “I wear green for James,” Tomkinson recalled how last year, days after James’ death, she rustled up green shirts at the last minute after learning of the existence of Green Shirt Day.

This year she was determined to have special shirts. A woman in her community, who makes custom shirts, designed it, and friends and family placed their orders. Tomkinson shipped more than 40 shirts all across Canada and the US.

“There are many people here that will be wearing green shirts, so for us, it’s celebrating James’ birthday, but it’s also celebrating that he was able to leave a legacy, that he was able to give a gift like that,” she said.

She described April 7 as a bittersweet day for her family.

“It’s a day that we would celebrate James anyway, April 7. We go to his favourite restaurant. We’re doing the same thing this year. But we are excited to teach people about Green Shirt Day and the meaning behind it and the message behind it,” she said. 

“I love that my kids are just as proud of their dad and so proud of the fact that he was able to help other people and to tell people about it.”

‘It could be them’

Both children, now 11 and 14, have encouraged classmates and friends to wear green on April 7. The Tomkinson family also lights up the exterior of their house in green for the month of April. Many in their community have done the same.

“Coming out of that fog of COVID in health care and wanting to have a slower, less stressful life and then having it ripped away had a lot of people feel for us,” she said. 

“One of the paramedics reached out to me afterwards and some of the nurses and even doctors were very affected by it. Because that could be them. We did the thing that a lot of people think about doing. ‘Life’s too short, let’s live now instead of waiting until retirement. Let’s do this scary thing.’ I think that resonated with a lot of people.”

Hopeful to meet recipients

In Nova Scotia, it’s possible for donor families and recipients to meet if both parties are interested. 

“There are several guidelines in place and some anonymity in the beginning, but it’s amazing that opportunity, that possibility, exists,” Tomkinson said.

Three weeks ago, she sent cards to the recipients of James’ kidneys through Legacy of Life. Those cards are given to the recipients anonymously. Although she hopes they’ll decide to respond, Tomkinson said she recognizes there’s a chance they won’t, and she’s OK with that. 

I said (in the cards) I truly hope that you’re well and healthy and living your best life, and I think of you often,” she said. “And that was it. I didn’t want to put any expectation of ‘please contact me,’ even though it would be great to hear back from them.”

‘Literally life-changing’

Recognizing that discussions about death and organ donation can be difficult, Tomkinson said the decision not to confront the issue makes it that much harder if something unexpected happens. 

“I think a lot of people have trouble with the visual of their loved one not being whole, and I really think that when you’re with someone when they pass away, you see that that’s not them anymore, that it’s just a shell,” she said. 

“For me, I think, why wouldn’t I want to help other people when I’m not going to use these anymore. I just think it’s such a special gift.”

Tomkinson’s hope is that if even one person sees one of her green shirts and learns more about or talks to their family about organ donation, it’s worth all the postal fees she spent to ship them across Canada. 

“I think that the biggest takeaway from organ donation is just that it’s not a gift that very many people can give, and it is amazing,” Tomkinson said. “It’s literally life changing. You don’t get very many opportunities to do that in your lifetime.”

Healing with horses

In addition to being kind and giving, Tomkinson said James was able to walk into a room and put anyone at ease. People would leave feeling like they’d known him forever. He was also a “fierce” mental health advocate who hoped to create an equine-assisted therapy program for first responders.

“James was diagnosed with PTSD after an event at work and ended up having to take some time off work. And that was one of the most difficult things he’s ever gone through and us as a family. But he overcame it,” she recalled.

“He always had an ear. He would always notice someone who might be struggling and be the one to reach out and not look the other way. He’d make that effort to just do a little something extra for someone that needed a little pick me up.”

When James was undergoing his PTSD treatment and recovery, Tomkinson said he was fortunate enough to be enrolled in an equine-assisted therapy program for first responders. 

“He fell in love with horses. He had started working towards his equine therapy certification by getting his hours in before we moved out here, and before COVID, of course,” Tomkinson said. 

“Something that we wanted to do when we moved out here was he really wanted to buy a piece of property where we could open a retreat with some cabins and tie in equine therapy to support first responders.”

Another adventure

The couple started looking for a property to fulfill that dream in the months before James’ death but hadn’t found quite the right fit. About a month after his death, Tomkinson found the perfect spot. 

Some of James’ ashes will be planted with a tree on the property so he can be part of the project about which he was so passionate.  

“I turned one of his drums into his urn… He’s in lots of places. We take him with us on our adventures. We take a little piece of dad and spread his ashes. I know that’s what he would want,” Tomkinson said. 

“He doesn’t want to be stuck on a shelf. Like, ‘Take me with you. Put me in places that I would love, or adventures that we were going to have. But just take me with you.’ And I feel the same way.”

‘Exactly where he wanted us to be’

As they prepare to mark what would have been James’ 48th birthday, Tomkinson reflects on how lucky she was to have him as her best friend.

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me, is there anything that you wish you had said before he died? Did you sit and tell him everything that you didn’t want to leave left unsaid,” Tomlinson said.

“We didn’t have anything left unsaid. I would sit and chat with him and talk to him and whatnot, but there wasn’t anything left unsaid for us. That’s a gift for me, the fact that we got to say goodbye. A lot of people don’t get that.”

More than a year since Tomkinson recorded James drumming in their garage, their 14-year-old son appears to be following in his music-loving father’s footsteps. 

“Since James died, my son has really picked up on the music aspect of James. He’s picked up his drums and his guitar and has been really into that now, which is really nice to see,” she said. 

A smiling man with glasses and wearing a white tee shirt and green ball cap sits at the helm of a boat.
James Tomkinson Credit: Contributed

Tomkinson said she knows her husband would be proud of them for advocating for organ donation and Green Shirt Day in his name.

“He is around for sure. I feel him here very much. And we’re exactly where he wanted us to be, that I know for sure,” she said.

More information about Nova Scotia’s Human Organ and Tissue Donation Act and organ donation can be found through Legacy of Life.

Under the act, which took effect Jan.18, 2021, everyone is a potential donor and is referred to donation programs to determine if they are good candidates.

Nova Scotians can opt out of becoming a donor at any time. Families are still consulted about their loved ones’ wishes regarding organ or tissue donation. 

A smiling white woman with long straight dark blonde hair and bangs, with half her face in dramatic shadow

Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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  1. Excellent story about a vital topic. I’ve been an organ donor since I turned 16, I think it was (it was rather a long time ago). It just goes without saying, in my books…I won’t be needing any of my parts once I head out into the universe as stardust, so anything that can be used to help others, great. The ultimate recycling job?