One of the most dramatic, life-changing moments happened to me in the most mundane setting possible. It was a bog-standard weekday afternoon in March 2012. I was about to eat an M&S sandwich at my desk when I got a message from my brother: my mum had gone into cardiac arrest and had been taken into hospital by paramedics. She was on life-support. I needed to get down there now.
Two agonising weeks followed, in which I sat next to her bed, knowing that she probably wasn’t going to wake up. A neurologist confirmed this, using words I didn’t understand. A nurse translated it for me. During the cardiac arrest, my mum’s brain had been damaged beyond repair. She was gone.
Do you still count as an orphan if you’re 26? (I still had a Young Person’s Railcard, so I’m going to say ‘yes’). I am the oldest of three and my dad had already died, seven years before. So, suddenly, it was down to me to think about things like ordering death certificates, cancelling bank accounts and notifying authorities. I had some (much valued) help from extended family, as well as the support of my partner and friends. But in many ways, I was completely alone and entirely responsible.
Out of all the complicated paperwork and difficult decisions I had to make, one thing was relatively simple.
When someone in your immediate family dies in hospital, an organ donation nurse will have a chat with you about what your loved one wanted to do, and how you feel about it. Even if they were on the organ donor register, you will have the final say.
I can’t imagine what this conversation is like for people who are unsure of their loved one’s wishes. At a time when your whole world has been turned upside down, when you are painfully aware that you can no longer ask this person what they want to do, you’ll be more likely to pick the safest option. Which, if you’re uncertain, is probably ‘no’.
Thankfully, I knew what my mum wanted, because we had talked about it before. I double-checked with my brothers, just to be sure, and we were all agreed. She had wanted to donate. So we gave our blessing for the process to go ahead.
Once everything had been wrapped up, I returned to my life in London. Everything felt like it had been picked up, shaken and put down in a slightly different place.
Months passed. One day, I received a handwritten letter. It was from the wife of a man that had received my mum’s kidney. Her husband had suffered from a long-term condition that meant he needed frequent dialysis. It had drained him and meant his whole life had become smaller. It had affected his whole family. But after he had received a transplant, he had recovered. ‘I’m so sorry that you have lost someone you loved,’ she wrote, ‘but thanks to their gift I’ve got my husband back’.
My mum was many things, but being a carer was one of the roles that defined her. At 18, she had emigrated from Ireland to train as a nurse. She specialised in the care of paralysed people. When it came to me and my brothers, she was entirely selfless. She gave everything to ensure we were healthy and happy. And I am so proud that even after her death, she managed to save lives and care for others.
This week is Organ Donation Week. NHS Blood and Transplant is campaigning to raise awareness of the fact that thousands of organ donation opportunities are lost every year, because families are uncertain about their loved one’s wishes.
86% of people support organ donation, and most people would accept a transplant if they needed one. But only 37% are on the register. New opt-out legislation in 2020 will help close this gap, but it’s still important that people register now, and inform their families. This means that every box will be ticked and more transplantations can take place.
So please: sign the register, then have a conversation with your family this week about whether you’re happy to donate your organs.
Don’t just do it for the people whose lives you could save with a transplant. Do it for your own family, to make their lives that little bit easier if anything happens to you.
Believe me, as someone who has been there. Talking about what you want after death might be painful in the present, but it’s an act of love that will live long into the future. It was the last act of love that my mum was able to give to me. And I still cherish it today.