On the first day after Christmas…

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Twelve days of Christmas, all done and dusted. And on the thirteenth day…The visible, decorative bits of it are finding their way back into boxes and bags and that beautiful tree that was such good company in the corner of the room will sit outside for a while, maybe somewhere for the birds to perch and go about their business.   The music, the adverts and programmes on TV, the films, the chatter, they’re all changing again.  It’s back to the more usual, the day-to-day, the ordinary.

Not so in this world of transplants. It doesn’t all stop when we walk out of hospital, or close the blog. It’s not like Christmas.  It doesn’t just go back in the box, off the agenda until next year, until an anniversary or a special reminder.  A transplant is rarely a simple, one-off cure. There are check ups, medications, maintenance procedures – sometimes simple and sometimes more serious and, as we all know, sometimes there are repeat performances.  That’s why all those people we really connect with along the way become so important to us all.  Even when we go back home.

Many of these Christmas blogs have included glimpses of international travel through the Transplant Games. It sounds simple, but it doesn’t come free with a transplant. There’s a lot of fundraising for individuals and families.  A lot of grant applications and letters to charities to help subsidise some of the teams. A lot of organising and communicating back and forth between team managers, committees, and event organisers.  Lots of work registering all those participants and spectators and sorting accommodation and socials and kit before we ever get to the Games venue for the year. And somewhere in the middle of that there are a few very busy people, generously making it all happen in their spare time. Each Transplant team is different, but the Birmingham Children’s Hospital team managers are mostly from the hospital staff – nutritionists, physios and a specialist nurse.

They are some of the people who take the donors’ gifts and make them work, beyond the surgeons.  They help reconnect recipients with their ordinary, now extraordinary lives.  At the Games we get to see each other, to talk beyond the ward, to gossip about anything and everything, to dress up for Gala dinners and dress down for breakfast, to laugh and dance, tell silly jokes and lark about.  To live a kind of lasting thank you. In between the Games, in the routine clinic appointments, they have a bit of time to catch up on things that matter for their patients beyond the medical. It’s not always the incredible and amazing things some of their former patients go on to do that thrills them most – but the deceptively ordinary stories that show how incredible and amazing life really is when we look at it again.  To round off this series, these words are from Lindsay Hogg, Transplant Specialist Nurse and a manager for the BCH team.

“When my patients got their transplants, their donors gave to me…
– first days at school
– walks on the beach
– holidays
– football matches
– nativity plays
– musical concerts
– singing
– pets
And I LOVE seeing the photos and hearing all about life post transplant in clinic.”  

The miracle of transplants is not just in the operating theatre.  It’s every day.  It’s a chance to see the magic in all that stuff we could just take for granted.  A chance to value those we have around us and any way we have of staying close. A chance to, you know, have a conversation for the sake of someone else…

On the twelfth day of Christmas…

xmas 12Eleven days of Christmas. Eleven days with thoughts from friends whose lives have been transformed by the gift from each organ donor and their family. (Thank you to everyone who sent us your words.) So, on the twelfth day of Christmas, one more bright light against a darker sky.

“When I received my transplant, my donor gave to me…
A longer life for me to be happy
Two Arsenal cup wins
Three playstations
Four Transplant Games
Five major ops, (you got to be kidding me……!)
Six GCSE’s
Seven ‘Fast and Furious’ films
Eight Croyde holidays
Nine Games medals
Ten more years with my dad, mum and brother
Eleven and many more friends who helped fundamentally
Twelve and more doctors, nurses, who cared for me.”

That’s from Ian, Luke Biggs’s dad, who knows well what Luke might have said (though Luke may still have surprised us all with something else!).
Ah, Luke. How much there is to say about Luke.
With Luke we all knew we were on to a good thing. A good friend. The very best sort of company to have when you are young, and in hospital, or recovering from a major operation, or celebrating together later with the team at the Transplant Games.
We just wanted it to last forever.
It’s not how it went. Luke had already had two transplants but needed a third, more complex still. He waited. His mum, dad and brother waited. We all waited, and in the waiting time we spent together we got to love each other more.

There was no last minute rescue. Sometimes all the love in the world isn’t enough to fix things.

Because of Luke’s first donors, those few short years touched so many of us. Touched? Collided with and changed us, in the kindest ways. Luke’s donors gave us the chance to see how a life, an ordinary life, even a short life, is really so very, very extraordinary. What greater gift…

Thanks for reading these Christmas blogs about the gifts of organ donors and their families. Have the conversation about organ donation and help others do the same. It might be ordinary but it could make an extraordinary difference for so many who are hoping for better times to come. May the New Year surprise you with kindness.

On the eleventh day of Christmas…

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If we could peep into the text messages, Facebook pages, WhatsApp, emails, and the cards and letters on tables and mantelpieces belonging to people who need, or have had, transplants, we would catch a glimpse of how many people can be waiting with us for good news, how many are cheering us all on, saying prayers, lighting candles, speaking our names with care and thought. Even when the world of family and friends outside is very small, in the medical teams and hospital staff on the wards some become new family as the cards on hospital corridor walls can show.

For those who go to the Transplant Games it all becomes much more visible.  At the opening ceremony, the City Hall, Cathedral, City Square, stadium, or whatever venue was chosen, fills up with mums, dads, siblings, sons, daughters, other relatives and friends.  The transplant athletes and participants are the main focus, of course, but watching with excitement and tears of joy are those of us who in other times and places listened with tears of a different kind to hard diagnoses, waited for the call from a transplant coordinator, sat by hospital beds, inched our way along with our loved one’s recovery, and can now scarcely believe the better place we have all reached together.  Being there together with others who know the stories inside out is like breathing big gulps of fresh air.

And it’s not all about the competition and the medals either, good though they can be as signs of achievement.  Everyone is already a winner just by being there. “You made it this far, you’re already a star…”  In the eyes and hearts of those in the stadium, the opening ceremony with the entry of the competing teams from their various hospitals is already a parade of champions, whatever happens next.

And next is the small parade of donor families and live donors.  If eyes were dry before this it can all change as we are knocked over by our gratitude to those in front of us, and the countless others we will never see, without whom all these stories would have been utterly different.

So, pause, take a minute to get inside these next few words and walk a while in the shoes of those who sent them…

“When my daughter received her transplant the donor gave to me…a new life for Maisie, pain free”
(Jenny, Maisie’s mum, Day 2)

When my mum received her transplant her donor gave to me…the very best present under the Christmas tree! (Ann’s daughter, Day 8)

“Our son’s donor gave to us…a chance at being a Mummy and Daddy.”  (Lucy and Ben, Charlie’s mum and dad, Day 9)

“When Harry received his transplants…it gave us a chance to live as a family outside of hospital wards.”  (Clare and Simon, Harry’s mum and dad, Day 10)

“When my son Blair received his kidney transplant his donor gave to him…the wonderful opportunity to visit New York”  (Joyce, sharing her son’s excitement and adventure.)

“When I received my transplant my donor gave to me…I could be the mom I wanted to be.”
(A mom, with a beautiful chance to be just that…)

Somebody out there must have watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” again over the last couple of weeks.  (Confession – we did.)  Wherever it might be on your priority list for Christmas movie viewing, it is an imaginative reminder of the way our lives are inter-connected and how what happens to one of us can affect so many others in ways we could probably never foresee. Ripples and ponds and spheres of influence and all that.

Organ donors make a life-transforming difference to many, many more people than the recipient.  There are about 50,000 people living today in the UK thanks to organ donors.  And there are over 6,000 people on the UK transplant waiting lists. Add to that their families, friends and spheres of influence and none of us are likely to be far from the story, one way or another.  Having that conversation about organ donation could be more personally important than we think.

On the tenth day of Christmas…

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Five years ago, just before his second transplant, Harry (nearly five years old then) and Clare, his mum, were interviewed on Breakfast TV. Harry laughed his way through the piece and then, still laughing, ran off round the studio and kept staff busy trying to catch him. The presenters quickly moved on to a report about broadband but it was too late. Harry won the day and captured the hearts of many, a persuasive invitation to have the conversation about organ donation.  See for yourself – just click this link .

In Harry’s case the conversation – many of them – had been about his dad, Simon, becoming a living donor. The liver is a miraculous organ and has the capacity to regenerate. Simon was able to donate part of his liver in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, from where it was then taken a couple of miles down the road to the Birmingham Children’s Hospital (BCH) where it became the life transforming gift for his son. Clare’s attention was stretched between Simon and Harry as they recovered, as well as with Harry’s younger brother, Sam.

Now, if there’s a call out to support an event for the hospital, or to raise a voice for organ donation, join a debate, make the case or celebrate the new life it can all bring for others, it’s a family commitment to respond and they’re one of the first to the line. Clare is now one of the BCH Governors, and a champion for its work.

Harry was soon “super better” and can now “run really fast”.  Harry and Simon both participate in the Transplant Games, Harry as a transplant athlete pouring his energy into a variety of sports alongside his young peers and Simon competing with other “live donors” in the swimming pool.  It’s hard to decide which one of the two, dad or son, gets the loudest cheers and longest applause.  It’s more than medals and the Games, of course, as Harry’s words make clear.

“When I received my transplant my donor gave to me… the chance to go to school, make friends, become a Cub Scout and play Minecraft”.

And more time to laugh. And make everybody else feel like joining in. In this story there’s a donor who can be thanked directly, though there is probably not much that could be better thanks than hearing Harry’s joy-filled laughter and having the rest of the family join in. And that’s a great reason for having these conversations.

On the ninth day of Christmas…

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Some people just shine. They can’t help it.

There’s a whole primary school worth of children at the annual Transplant Games. They’re everywhere. They’re not quiet either, not usually. Certainly not at the social events, or the final night Gala Dinner and the Award ceremony. OK, some might be a bit louder than others. But when they do stand out we know they’re shouting for their team, for everybody at the Games, for their families and their friends, and just because they can.  You need to see it. And hear it.

And age doesn’t matter. You don’t need to work on arranging older buddies or mentors for them. They gravitate. They recognise love when they receive it. They see fun when it’s around them and they want to share in it, no matter what ages it might involve.

Today’s star from this bright constellation is a young man who had a liver transplant when he was just three months old.  He’s 10 now and has been coming to the Transplant Games for, ooh, years!  He’s a veteran with seven Games under his belt.  He’s had a crack at most things the youngest team members do – obstacle races, ball throw, long jump, 25 metre dash (mums and dads waving at the far end to remind them where they are supposed to be heading), now into longer and more serious race lengths. He’s a “taking part person”, a determined and enthusiastic competitor who just loves to compete (and an occasional medal is always a good thing to carry home and take into school with pride).

But if you could win medals on the dance floor for sheer energy and “get in there and do it-ness” he’d have a heavy bag to carry home.  He was caught on video a few years ago when, after the Dinner and the Awards, a circle of all ages from his team started singing a Games theme tune, borrowed from Freddie Mercury – “We are the Champions”.  His enthusiasm, full “heart and soul stuff” matched anyone else in the circle.  He danced with his arm round the waist of one of the many young people he’s so fond of – well, reaching up he could just about make waist height.  As the song reached it’s climax he clung round that waist with both arms and a face so full of excitement and belonging you could light rooms with it.  Charlie Doughty, whose words should shout off the page –

“When I received my transplant my donor gave to me…a zest for life and a mission to succeed!” 

And that is a gift to his mum and dad too. What’s better than seeing your children charging about on top of the world, even if they’re not quite big enough yet to climb up onto the top of it on their own.  (But more about mums and dads another day.)

On the eighth day of Christmas…

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When we invited people to send some words for these blogs we had no idea what would come or when. So there was no real rhyme or reason to the order in which they would be posted. However, today, for a reason we hadn’t foreseen, the words chosen are all from swimmers in the GBNI Transplant Games Swimming Team.

The first is from Paul Meikle, a young man with an impressive clatter of Gold and Silver medals from the World Games in Newcastle in 2019 (amongst others), a World Transplant speed record  in 100m backstroke… and always a ready and willing collaborator in the fun-filled, nocturnal extra-curricular activities of the young teams at the annual Games (all legal!).

When I received my transplant, my donor gave to me…the opportunity to experience lots of different things in life such as to grow up, meet great friends, travel to different places and to live life to the full.”   

Jodie Cox, one of the captains of the GBNI team, with her own hard-earned stash of medals, and World Transplant Games speed records to her name, says, in this gently understated way…

When I received my transplant my donor gave to me…the ability to spread my wings, travel the world and meet amazing people.”  

Ann Peet is one of the newest members of the  team.  “My first gift of life has been receiving my new transplanted kidney,” she said.  “My second gift of life has been becoming involved in transplant sport and being part of the swim team. I never thought that what I have achieved so far was possible for someone like me.”

“When I received my transplant my donor gave to me…new challenges,  new friends and a world of possibilities! “

Pam Lane is also a medal-winning team member. “Someone, somewhere, gave me a kidney.  Someone, somewhere, gave me the world.  I’ve always loved travelling but, when I was on dialysis, it wasn’t possible to visit some places that I had always wanted to see. I took up competitive swimming after my transplant so my sentence is this:  ”

“When I received my transplant my donor gave to me…the chance to swim in a 50m geothermal pool in a village in Iceland, followed by hours gazing up at the night sky and catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Magical!”

In the last couple of days of 2020 we heard the heart-breaking news of the deaths of two well-loved members of the GBNI Transplant swim team, Murray Beehan and Sam Griffiths.  Both have had much to say about the gift of life from their donors. This news, alongside similar news of other friends in the Transplant family this year is a compelling reminder of how precious and precarious is the world of transplants.

In these hardest of times when it is so difficult to reach and hold those we love, we know no words will change the story for Murray’s and Sam’s families and friends. As we share this page we remember them with gratitude, and honour them with love.

 

 

On the seventh day of Christmas…

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Arriving at the annual Transplant Games on Thursday afternoons, often one of the first smiling faces we see is Hollie’s. Hollie competes in archery and as that’s one of the first events of the Games, she has usually already won a medal for the team. There’s swimming to come later, and the long jump on the track and field day on Sunday. And usually more medals.

The UK Games are hosted by different cities each year so we’ve been with Hollie and her mum and dad in places we might not normally visit. Then there’s the World Transplant Games and Hollie’s participated in a couple so far – Malaga and Newcastle – as a member of the GB&NI team. Add in the European Games in Sardinia.

You get the picture. A young woman in her teens, committed and smiling her way through her unexpected adventures with the dedicated support and love of her mum and dad. It’s a colourful and exciting trail with lots of hard work, training and commitment mixed in with ongoing post-transplant “maintenance”. (And lots of medals!)
It’s here, in the words that Hollie sent.

“When I received my Transplant, my donor gave to me…
A Kidney, so I could pee.
The chance of life, to see the world, before I’m twenty three.
To take part in sports, and to represent my country.
Bless my father, for his kindness, and my mother’s company.”

You can read a bit more from Hollie on this website – today’s bonus link. But first, just skip back a bit. Hollie’s first sentence isn’t something most of us talk about much (unless you’re bursting and there’s a long queue!). But those few words are the key to everything else. It all starts with a huge transformation that’s as basic, ordinary and vital as it sounds. Hollie’s gift of a kidney from Malcolm, her dad, was the chance for her body to start functioning as it should. And even if none of the rest was quite as exciting as it is, that first sentence would stand on its own as the real beauty of the gift. Everything that follows is a way of saying thank you…

On the sixth day of Christmas…

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A year ago today, somewhere in the UK, a man died. We don’t know who he was or who his family are but in his last hours they gave us a gift we could never repay.  For that family the day would visit them with darkness and touch them each with grief, changing what they carry from then on.  And their kindness in their sorrow kindled hope in each of us; a chance to take us through our own gathering darkness and on to brighter days.

Lucia walked down the corridor a year ago this afternoon from the Liver Intensive Therapy Unit (LITU) to the Liver Transplant Theatre with her head held high and her heart full of hope. Our words, our hugs and kisses were poor expressions of the depth of feeling of us all, but they had to carry us through. “See you next year,” Lucia said, with a smile that lights us still. “You’ll see me before then but I’ll still be asleep!”

After 14 hours in the theatre and the most demanding of transplant operations, the surgeon came to us in the waiting room. Two hours earlier the transplant coordinator had warned us that it wasn’t going well. “They are doing everything they possibly can so we are hoping and praying it can be enough and we’ll see how it goes.”
We don’t remember breathing after that until the surgeon came through the door. “Better,” he said. We grasped at the air his words brought.  Not better as in “fixed, all OK”, but better than it could have been, better than they all expected, better enough to work with. Better enough to go back to theatre in a couple of hours for much more.
When Lucia received her transplant her donor gave to us…a chance to breathe.

It was a long and hard road that followed until almost five months later and still in LITU, Lucia closed her eyes for the last time and her light and life continue in ways we can’t hug.  Those weeks, hours, moments are a mixture of the hardest of images tangled inseparably with the warmth, hope, quiet persistence, resilience and determination of a young woman who said she “couldn’t wait…to be up and about causing mayhem and making trouble”, who had, as she wrote in her last blog (March 2020), “so much more living to do”.

There was immense care around us all, skill given in kindness and commitment, support and encouragement from family and friends at home and around the world, including some of the youngest voices from Lucia’s teammates in the Games.  And there was love enough to hold the four of us together. We worked our way through the intensity of feelings and were graced by Lucia’s smiles, conversation, holding hands, finding ways to hug a little through the ever-present lines and tubes.

We helped her with exercises, physio, and at its best, a routine in a bedside chair to an Alicia Keys track, helped her stand to a walking frame, even make a few steps across the room and back.  As always, Lucia helped us more, with her gentleness, her courage, her gracious collaboration with the next things that needed to be done.
When Lucia received her transplant her donor gave to us…the chance to be together.

This was Lucia’s fourth transplant. When anyone asked during those 12 years since her first if the previous transplants had failed, Lucia said, “No. They all worked. They all kept me alive and brought me to today.” Even this last transplant worked. It was other complications that clouded the scene.

So, on this anniversary on which someone’s life ended and gave the chance of a lifetime to our daughter, sister, we are grateful to another donor and to his family. In those few months, even in the darkness, we made more memories together that will last a lifetime. The gracious generosity of Lucia’s last donor, and each one before, will remain in our hearts, treasured and honoured alongside her, with gratitude.

 

On the fifth day of Christmas…

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We’ll soon arrive at 1st of January. I wonder what you’ll be doing then…

Today’s words are from Keeleigh, (never short of a few!).

“When I received my transplant my donor gave to me… more than I could have possibly imagined. They gave me hope, the opportunities I never even dreamed of. They gave me the world at my feet, to explore, to accomplish and challenge myself. They gave me more than material things, nothing that comes wrapped with bows. They gave me the opportunity to spend time with friends and family, meet new friends and to create the most magical memories. My donor family gave me a chance.”

They also gave her the chance to become a friend to others. And she has, as many will confirm with enthusiasm and a dose of hilarious stories.

On 1st January Keeleigh will set off on a walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats (well, the equivalent distance a bit closer to her home). Being typically Keeleigh, she’s about to go much more than the extra mile for someone else. These miles are for her brother, Klaiton. Have a read of Keeleigh’s generous story on this link (another two-for-one blog – such value!)

Oh, these donors and their families, they give so much more than they could ever know.

On the fourth day of Christmas…

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Today there’s a special Christmas gift – a two in one blog. A multi-media special.

In 2017, The Children’s Liver Disease Foundation (CLDF) invited a small group of young people on a week-long residential (“Talk, Tell, Transform”) to talk with each other about their experiences of living with liver disease, some of which had led to transplants.

The young people’s family members will probably never know all that went on in that mix of laughter, tears, struggles and support, although some entertaining stories have occasionally leaked out.

At the end of the week, the participants were invited to tell something of their own stories to camera. The short video stories shared on the CLDF website are all powerful, honest and moving. This one, from Luke, was all of that, and presented in a creative and unusual way. Just click on this link and watch how one young star chose to tell his story.

That was three years ago. Since then Luke has made the wheels turn – literally, by winning medals for cycling in the World Transplant Games. On or off a bike Luke’s not standing still.

“When I received my transplant, my donor gave to me…a chance to go to University.”

That’s to do a Media Production degree, so we can expect to see and hear much more from Luke in the future, one way or another. A gift to us all, from his donor.