By Sadie Nicholas
AS Pauline Holmes arrived home from work on Friday October 3, 2008, she got the phone call that every parent dreads: her son Russell, 26, had collapsed while helping a friend move decorating equipment and had been rushed to hospital.
She and her daughter Claire, now 26, and ex-husband Trevor dashed to Southampton General Hospital to be at Russell’s side. “I convinced myself nothing tragic would have happened to my son,” remembers Pauline, 56, who works for a yacht broker and lives in Southampton.“But when we arrived at the hospital we were told Russell was having a CT scan on his brain. Within the hour a doctor gave us the devastating news that he’d had a massive brain haemorrhage and there was nothing else they could do for him.
The shock was unimaginable. “in the next breath, the doctor asked if we’d consider donating Russell’s organs. it was an enormous decision to make in the throes of such heartbreaking news but we agreed that we couldn’t waste such a wonderful person as Russell and nodded that, yes, we would agree to organ donation.”
Distraught, the family were taken to the room where Russell was on a life-support machine. They spent precious time talking to him and holding his hand. He was moved to the intensive-care unit where he was kept on life support until recipients were found for his organs.
Pauline recalls how they had to wait for a transplant co-ordinator to arrive from London. “She was very caring and kept re iterating that if at any point we changed our minds then we only had to say so. as we left the hospital in the small hours we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. How could Russell be gone? He’d been so fit and healthy. Claire and i had each spoken to him on the phone an hour before he collapsed and he’d visited his dad and nan earlier that day. He’d been his usual cheerful self.
“He loved a joke but was caring and gentle. if he made a friend he never forgot them. He put 110 per cent into everything he did, loved cars and watching the touring car events at silverstone and had been working for Ford Motor Company when he died.”
it’s impossible to imagine the grief the family felt as they returned to the hospital the next day. “We told Russell how very much we loved him,” Pauline says. “The irony is that had we not agreed to donate his organs we
wouldn’t have had that extra day with him because the life-support machine would have been switched off.”
At 2.15pm on October 4 after tests showed there was no brain activity, Russell was pronounced dead. The family were given paint so they could make prints of his hands as keepsakes and they took locks of his hair.
“At 10pm that night, with recipients found for the organs, Russell was taken to theatre,” Pauline says. “We said our last goodbyes and the three of us hugged and cried, not really knowing where to go from there.”
The same evening 120 miles away in Plymouth, Sarah and andy Richard- son received the call they’d been longing for: a donor liver had been found for their desperately ill daughter Abi, then 13. The liver was Russell’s.
Sarah, 38, a GP’s receptionist, and Andy, 42, who works in the yachting industry, had been told when abi was a baby that she had biliary atresia, a form of liver disease. she would need medication for life and would prob ably need a transplant.
Fortunately Abi enjoyed good health until October 2006 when she became breathless and was diagnosed with hepatic pulmonary syndrome, caused by end-stage liver disease.
“It was like being hit with a sledgehammer,” says Sarah. She and Andy also have a son Carl, 19, and a baby Lily-Mai. “They told us Abi must give up dance and sport. A year later in December 2007 the consultant put Abi on the transplant list, which was a shock. By then just walking short distances made her hands turn blue and she coughed constantly.
“In June 2008 her condition had deteriorated so much she was escalated to the priority transplant list. Andy and I were desperate for a donor liver to become available and jumped every time the phone rang. By August we were told she could die if they didn’t fi nd a liver fast.”
Two months later Sarah and Andy were in Tesco when they got a call to say a liver had become available. Sarah says: “I froze. An hour later we were in an ambulance on our way to King’s College Hospital. When your child’s life depends on it, you’re constantly willing a donor to become available but it hit me hard that somewhere a family was going through hell because their loved one had died. Despite feeling relief I also felt great sadness.”
On October 5 Abi had an eight hour transplant operation and three weeks later she was home. The Holmes family, meanwhile, were struggling to come to terms with Russell’s death. On October 16 more than 200 people attended his funeral, including friends from the college in Winchester where he’d studied landscape gardening and been awarded student of the year.
By then Pauline knew that a child, a woman and two men had benefited from Russell’s organs, his liver shared by two of them. All the Richardsons knew was that the donor had been a healthy young man who had died suddenly.
Early in 2009 Abi said she’d like to write to the donor family to thank them. At the same time Pauline, Claire and Trevor knew they wanted to write to the organ recipients, desperate to know they were well.
Though there are almost 3,000 organ transplants carried out in the UK every year, it’s unusual for donor and recipient families to want to know the identity of the other. However Pauline, Sarah and their families have developed a heart- warming friendship.
“We wrote to the families via the transplant co-ordinator,” Pauline explains. “We kept our letters brief, wishing the recipients well and told them a bit about Russell. We were fortunate to receive responses from all four organ recipients and found we had a special connection with Sarah, Andy and Abi. We received a touching reply from them written on beautiful notepaper illustrated with hearts and were thrilled to know Abi was thriving.”
Sarah admits they were nervous reading Pauline’s fi rst letter but delighted she’d contacted them. “We felt so sad for Pauline and wrote to tell her we could never thank her enough for making such a brave decision. Pauline then sent some photos of Russell. It was heartbreaking to look at this lovely young man and take it in that he was no longer alive.”
They continued to exchange their letters and on December 5 last year they met at a hotel. “I was overcome with so many emotions,” Pauline says. “Sarah and I had some time together on our own, one mum to another. We cried and hugged and Sarah told me how they could never thank us enough for allowing Russell’s organs to be donated. We met again for a family meal last Christmas and have seen each other regularly this year.
“We discovered the similarities between our families are uncanny – Pauline and Andy both work in the yachting industry and, unbeknown to us, we’d all been at the Southampton boat show on neighbouring boats just weeks before Russell died. Abi has even inherited traits from Russell – a lot of transplant patients report the same thing – such as a sudden love of cars and salt and vinegar crisps, which she used to hate but which were Russell’s favourite.”
Pauline says: “None of us likes to think about death but if you’re willing to receive an organ you should also be willing to donate. If we hadn’t agreed to Russell’s organs being donated then Abi might not be here today and her parents would be going through the same awful grief that we are.
There are currently 10,000 people in the UK waiting for a transplant and three of them will die every day because not enough organs are available.” Sarah says: “Pauline, Claire and Trevor are part of our family now and always will be. Even before we had Abi, Andy and I were on the organ donor register. Little did we know that one day it would all mean so much to us.”
● To sign up to the organ donor register visit www.organdonation.nhs.uk or call 0300 123 23 23. www.childliverdisease.org