‘I lashed out when doctors wanted mum’s organs – now I know she saved 6 lives’
When the doctors asked us about donating my mum’s organs, all I could feel was fury.
I was aged 13, and hours earlier we’d been told my mum, Heulwen, had suffered a brain aneurysm and was only being kept alive by a life support machine.
It was the most painful moment of my life.
The doctors were trying to be patient and thoughtful, but there was urgency to their request they couldn’t mask.
I remember one saying: “We know what a difficult time this is for you. We’re very sorry, but we need to discuss whether you will agree to donating Heulwen’s organs.”
I didn’t completely understand, possibly because of my age, but I did know it felt like they were physically ripping my heart out.
I lashed out, horrified they were even asking us the question so soon, at such a sensitive time but now I know they were just doing their job.
Much of the rest of the conversation is a blur, but as a family my grandad Gordon, now 88, dad Simon, 60, uncle Hywel, 56, my sisters Hanna, 31, Beth, 28, and I decided that, yes, we should donate.
My 51 year-old mum was not on the organ donation register, but she’d happened to tell my uncle six months earlier that she would like to be a donor if the time ever came.
I’m sure she didn’t think that time would come so very soon.
We had to say goodbye then. I gave her a final hug, and remember she was so warm, while at the same time I knew she wasn’t really there anymore.
Then we left the hospital and as soon as I got home, I instantly got changed and binned the clothes I’d been wearing for the last 24 hours.
Life slowly limped on but I didn’t think about organ donation again, instead choosing to block out the memory of that terrible day in January 2006.
But when the Mirror launched the Change the Law for Life campaign in 2015, calling for everyone in the UK to be a potential organ donor unless they choose to opt out, I began to wonder about the people who might have benefitted from my mum’s donation.
Were the operations even successful or was it all a waste of time? Was it just one person? Did they have children? Was it a child who was helped?
So I decided to write to the NHS donor family care service.
I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic that I’d be able to find anything out, yet within three days they sent me letters from 2006 addressed to my dad and to me that I’d never seen before – because at the time I just didn’t want to know.
It took me a week to prepare myself to read the letters and then it was on a train to Wales, aptly, because that’s where my mum was from, that I decided to open them.
Incredibly the letters told me my mum saved six people’s lives.
Thanks to her four other mums and a man in his fifties had been given life-saving transplants.
Her liver was given to a 38-year-old mum-of-three and one of her kidneys was given to a 33-year-old single mum with a young daughter.
Before the transplant, this mum had been on dialysis for many years and could now spend more time with her little girl.
My mum’s second kidney was donated to a 40-year-old woman who lives with her son, daughter and own mother.
She too was confined to a life on dialysis before the transplant.
A 52-year-old man was given one of my mum’s lungs, and without it he would have died. Before this, he was living alone and struggling to cope on his own at home.
The second lung was given to a 56-year-old woman, married and with two grown up children.
But it was a letter dated two months later that touched me the most.
Dated March 22, 2006, it said: “A few weeks ago a five-year-old boy underwent life saving surgery and was transplanted with one of Heulwen’s heart valves.
“This little boy was born with severe heart problems and prior to his operation was very unwell.
“We can only imagine the difference this operation will make to this boy’s life and to his family.”
I now know a little bit of my mum lives on in those six people, something that will now comfort me forever.
The immediate years after her death were the most difficult of my life.
But I was carried through by the love and support of my family, especially my dad, my sisters, and and my friends.
As we pulled each other through, there were still moments of light and laughter while we adapted to life without mum.
One Sunday, two weeks after she died, we were remembering how good mum’s gravy was with the roast while dad tried to replicate her recipe.
It ended up looking like hot chocolate, which he then accidentally spilt all over the kitchen. We all laughed and cried at the same time.
We remembered how my mum, an animal lover like me, would allow our pet guinea-pigs to run around our living room driving my dad mad.
And my favourite memory of the short time I had with mum was just me and her, watching Corrie together.
We got a golden retriever called Bruce, who was extremely disobedient but brought us so much happiness during that dark time, always comforting me when the grief would come.
And my dad became both parents to three teenages girls.
To my great embarrassment, he found it amusing to ask me very loudly over from the next aisle in the supermarket which tampons he should buy for us.
My mum was born in Swansea, was very proud to be Welsh, and later went on to work as a speech therapist in St Albans, Hertfordshire, where I grew up.
Her real passion was art and music, something she always tried to pass on to me and my sisters.
We miss her everyday but are comforted by her incredible legacy.
Changing the law to an opt-out system won’t make a death any less painful and, as I know only too well, families might feel outraged when they are asked to donate in that devastating moment.
But this is why it’s so important to talk to your loved ones about organ donation and if you, like me, have decided to join the organ donor register.
Change the Law for Life
The Mirror’s Change the Law for Life campaign calls for everyone in the UK to be a potential donor unless they opt-out. Wales has the system and Scotland will follow.
In February MPs finally voted for the opt-out system in England.
If the planned law change comes in 2020, bereaved relatives and parents will still have the right to veto a donation.
The Bill, which could save thousands, will go to the House of Lords in December and will be known as Max’s Law after Max Johnson, 10, who was saved by a heart transplant.
For more information, visit the organ donation website here.
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