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Two minutes to save nine lives - Organ Donation Week 2023

Published on 18/09/2023

Every day someone in the UK dies waiting for a transplant due to a shortage of people donating their organs after death.

At present, there are around 7,000 people waiting for a transplant. However, as only 1,400 people die in circumstances where organ donation is possible, every donation is precious and can make such a difference.

Organ donation will only go ahead with the support of the family. This means it is just as important as ever to add your name and decision on the NHS Organ Donor Register, because families are more likely to support the decision of someone who has registered.

Specialist Nurse for Organ Donation, Natalie Taylor, said: “While a national opt-out system is in place, if a family chooses to not support organ donation, their wishes are respected, however families are more likely to support the decision of someone who has signed the organ donor register.

“Each person on the organ donor register, should they ever become a donor, could save or change the lives of up to nine people. It only takes two minutes to sign the register.”

Anthony Clarkson, Director of Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation for NHS Blood and Transplant said: “It’s brilliant of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust (UHB) to show its support for Organ Donation Week.

“We need people in Birmingham and Solihull to add their name and decision to the NHS Organ Donor Register. This could be the difference between life and death for someone else.”

Read about some of the lives transformed by the most generous of gifts this Organ Donation Week – check our website and social media channels for more. Then, take two minutes to confirm your organ donation decision.

Heartlands Hospital midwife gave life after death

Karl and Sara on their wedding day

“Sara was the most wonderful person - all who came across her would agree.” Karl Pitt said about his late wife, Sara, who had been a midwife at Heartlands and Solihull hospitals for almost 18 years.

Karl, a retired teacher from Sutton Coldfield, first met Sara in a bar in 1991 in Birmingham and they were together for five years until they married in 1996, marking their 25th anniversary in 2021 - the year that Sara unexpectedly died at the age of 47.

Sara died in hospital in the December, following a chest infection that wouldn’t clear. Karl recalls: “Sara would get chest infections every six to nine months and we hadn’t thought too much of it, on a holiday in Spain in around 2016, Sara had to go into hospital. Doctors there thought there was scarring from an old or latent TB [tuberculosis] infection. After that, steroids and antibiotics would usually clear the infections when they came.”

But approaching Christmas almost two years ago, this infection felt different to Sara. Karl remembers that Sara said: ‘Karl this isn’t going, it is not clearing’, and she had already spent the week in bed at home, trying to recover and get back to their three children, Caitlyn, now 15, and twins Chloe and Harrison, 13, and the job she loved.

“Sara was a midwife for 18 years, and she worked so hard to get there, going to college and university a bit later than some. Sara would go on to work at Solihull Hospital, and when she died she was working at Heartlands Hospital, supporting countless new mums bring new life into the world, and she did all of this while raising our children.” Karl said.

Karl was at work at a school in Wolverhampton when their daughter called to say she had called an ambulance for her mum, as her chest was just getting worse.

“At the hospital, we though that this will be fine - it’s not too bad, but you could see that Sara was really struggling. After two days, she had become so weak, the doctors said that her struggling for breath was sapping her energy and putting her organs under strain, so they recommended placing Sara in an induced coma to support her breathing and organs and hopefully improve her condition. Sara and I agreed, and we said goodbye. We did think she would recover.” Karl tells us.

After five days in hospital, Sara’s condition had not improved. Devastatingly, there was nothing more that could be done to help her.

“We had been looking forward to Christmas with the kids, as you do.” Karl says.

“Sara was compassionate, she talked straight, she always gave you time and you appreciated that. Sara was well respected, honest, and she had so much empathy. She connected with everybody.” he added.

“We had talked about organ donation briefly, it was on her driving licence, and she was on the organ donor register, so when it came to letting Sara go, a nurse came to speak to us about donation. It is what Sara wanted and we respected her wishes.

“At Sara’s funeral we could not get everyone in the room, people had to stand outside, but whoever it was, be them a nurse, doctor, consultant, midwife, even students who came, they said that she was wonderful and ‘the best they had ever worked with’, I’ve no doubt that she was.” Karl said.

Sara's donation changed or saved four lives

Lorraine O’Keeffe, a ward clerk in maternity and now an elective care coordinator at UHB, worked with Sara for 14 years, she told us: “I first worked with Sara on delivery suite, and we were good friends - the best of friends. We would work on night shifts together, and there were just so many laughs and conversations about everything and anything.

“Sara loved music, and at the start of a shift, before even getting out of the car park you would hear Sara’s car coming around the corner before you saw her as she would be blasting out Cher or Dolly Parton.

“We’d always take our breaks together and she had such a heart of gold, she knew when you were struggling, and I knew when she was down.

“She was the kind of work pal and best friend, where after some night shifts and getting off at 08:00 in the morning, we’d still be talking on the phone at lunchtime. She was one of a kind.

“She was so good at her job, and she just loved it. She kept that PAER [pregnancy triage room] running. 

“I miss her so much, and miss putting the world to rights with her.

“Sara was quite spiritual, she did believe in life after death, and she talked quite openly about being a [organ] donor, so knowing that her wishes were respected and that she went on to save others when she died, is definitely not surprising - she was always giving in life. She’d give you her last penny.”

Another colleague, midwife Hannah Wilding, who had worked with Sara since 2007 said: “You could always hear her laughter from down the corridor, she was so kind, and she was also fiercely protective of the women we see, and her family. She was a real advocate for them. She always helped her colleagues, and she was just so savvy at sorting anyone’s problems out.

“Sara would also bribe everyone and the doctors with sweets at work, and she loved her job. We always keep that jar topped up with sweets to this day.”

Sara’s husband Karl added: “Some months after Sara has passed away, I received a letter to tell me that Sara’s organs had gone on to save or change the lives of four people.

“There is no question that knowing this was a help for us. It meant a lot to know that after helping so many in life, she was able to help so many in death.

“It is important to be registered on the organ donor register. To know that Sara’s donation, after there was nothing that could be done to save her, saved, or made others’ lives easier, is something we will never regret as a family.”

It takes two minutes to register your decision. Visit the website to make your wishes clear.

Richard Lamen's story

A patient waiting for a life-saving heart transplant was surprised to undergo the operation at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Richard Lamens, who first had a massive heart attack in 2011, was put on the routine transplant waiting list in 2013. He was closely monitored by the team at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, who took the decision to implement an innovative procedure to fit an artificial heart pump called a left ventricular assist device, LVAD. This helped with the blood flow around the body and gave him much needed time while he waited for a heart donor.

The urgency increased when he started to get infections on the LVAD driveline site. The increased risks meant, in 2020, he was put on the urgent transplant waiting list. Richard’s wife Shirley said, “It was at this point that we felt like time was running out. When we got the call in July of that year to say there could be a suitable donor, it was a very emotional time. Richard was already an inpatient to treat his driveline infection. As it was in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic the call was totally unexpected. We didn’t think the operation would happen during this time, so could appreciate how hard the transplant team kept working to get the best outcome for Richard.”

To remove the LVAD and to carry out the transplant took 16 hours. Due to the pandemic restrictions, Shirley was only allowed to see Richard before he went to theatre and then she had to return home. Shirley said, “To minimise the risk and spread of infection, I wasn’t allowed to visit following the surgery and initially during Richard’s long three months of recovery in hospital.”

To get through this time and to help process her thoughts and feelings, Shirley started writing a diary. She has turned this into a book and is hoping to publish this soon. Richard added, “It never crossed our minds, and we certainly hadn’t discussed the possibility that I might be offered a donor heart during COVID-19. It was an incredible thing to go ahead with a serious operation in the middle of the pandemic.”

Since the transplant, Richard has been on holiday again to Ibiza, the place where he and Shirley first met in 1976. He has also been spending time with their four children and eleven grandchildren, the last two he may not have met if an organ donor had not been found.

Richard said, “When I got the call to say the operation could go ahead, it was scary. The odds were against me. I’m aware not everyone gets to have a transplant, especially during a global pandemic, so I count myself very lucky. No words can describe our gratitude to the organ donor and the family who selflessly gave me the gift of life.” Shirley’s book, ‘The Heart of Ibiza,’ which shares the journey of Richard’s illness, will be published soon on Amazon.

Andrew’s gratitude for three transplants

It was at the end of 1993 that Andrew Beer caught viral cardiomyopathy, leading to a six-week stay in Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham (QEHB), it would take a further few months until it would become clear that he needed a heart transplant.

In the following April, after lots of tests and medical investigations, Andrew received a heart transplant – after waiting only six days.

Being a young man at the time, Andrew never thought he’d never even get a girlfriend, but almost thirty years later, and now living in Australia with his wife, Donna, and two children, Andrew reflects on his transplant journey.

Andrew said: “Back in 1994, after my first transplant, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to lead a normal life, like going clubbing, falling in love and having a family.  I met Donna in 1998, we bought a house together in 2000 and got married three years later.

It would be 11 years after his first heart transplant, in 2005, when Andrew was working in carpentry as a boat fitter that he would have to climb two metres up and down ladders on a Dutch barge he was working on, when he started to find he was getting out of breath easily.

“Those were the first signs of chronic rejection I came to find out. Two of the main arteries had started to close, and I needed another transplant.” said Andrew, and he found himself back at QEHB. This time however he was told it wasn’t going to be as straightforward as his first transplant.

Andrew waited seven months before getting the news that a match had been found. He recalls: “With the donor pool being small, we knew it was going to be a long wait.

“I had two calls to go in for a transplant only to find that the hearts were already diseased and unsuitable for transplantation.  I was beginning to lose hope when I finally got the third call and this time it was a healthy heart.  However, after the transplant, my kidneys needed ‘waking up’ a bit, so I had to go on dialysis for a short time.

“Donna and I also wanted a family, but it didn’t seem to be happening for us, then I had my second transplant and only 3 months later, Donna became pregnant with our first child – it felt like a bit of a miracle.”

Tragically, another turn for the worst happened, with Andrew going into kidney failure in 2012, and while his father was going to selflessly donate a kidney to him, he received an unexpected call to say a donor had become available, and so he underwent his third transplant.

Andrew said: “My Dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer, that was found whilst being tested to see if he was healthy enough to donate a kidney.  I had no idea that I was still on the transplant list.

“I think the first thing [about having three transplants] is you've got to keep a sense of humour, and you’ve got to keep positive thoughts about life.

“There have been times when I've been in dark places, but I have great parents who looked after me while I was in hospital the first time around, and a great wife of 20 years, Donna is amazing; she has done so much for me.

“We've got children too, now 14 and 16, they've had it tough, they've had to come through a lot of this too and it's probably tougher now they're teenagers. My daughter she sees how I am now, I have arthritis in my neck, clicky joints, aches and pains, and I think she's a bit concerned. She says: ‘You're an old man’ - I'm not, I'm 53!

“I can’t thank the donors and their families enough. Without your gifts of life, I wouldn’t be here.

“I’ve had 29 extra years that I didn’t think I’d have. For anyone who is thinking about it, please sign the organ donor register and make your family aware.”

Andrew and his family moved to Australia in 2015. As a family, they raise awareness of the benefits of organ donation, with Andrew being living proof, next year he will mark 30 years since his first transplant.

In gratitude for the donors, nurses and surgeons who have saved his life, “more than once” as he says, Andrew and his family are hoping to raise money to help those who find themselves in situations similar to Andrew’s own experience all those years ago, and for the Edmonds Transplant Centre, which is being developed at QEHB to provide a ‘one-stop-shop’ for patients who need an organ transplant.

It takes only two minutes to save or change up to nine lives. Confirm your decision by signing the organ donor register.

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