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The Greatest Gift

"She saved three people - there is peace in that" - the man who donated his wife's organs

Ray’s wife suffered a fatal brain haemorrhage before his eyes late last year. The following day her organs were transplanted into three people.

3529592370_fa4d77ac88_o Erik Söderström Erik Söderström

TODAY SEES THE end of Organ Donation Awareness Week. But this is a donation story with a difference.

Ray’s story is heavily entwined with organ donation – but he neither donated an organ nor received a transplant. He donated his wife’s organs and saved three lives in the process.

Married for six years, Ray and Helen (not their real names) had their world torn asunder in one moment late last year.

Helen had returned home one afternoon from walking the dogs. It was 2.10pm. She went to take off her shoes – when Ray turned to her the top half of her face had suddenly convulsed. A nurse, he knew instantly what that meant.

“When you see the upper third of the face go like that you know it’ll likely be a bleed on the brain,” he says.

Helen had suffered a devastating brain haemorrhage. From the moment it happened Ray knew what the likely outcome would be.

He called an ambulance and immediately commenced CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation).

“It was to keep her going. It’s the only thing you can do at the time. But I was so grateful when the ambulance and paramedics arrived. Because I couldn’t continue,” he says.

When you train one of the things trotted out is that you have a 90% likelihood of performing CPR when the time comes on a loved one. I found myself second-guessing my own moves in those ten minutes. I was extremely grateful when professional help arrived.

A full response was with Ray in about ten minutes. But it was already too late. In truth there was little that could have been done. Ray followed his wife to the hospital in a second ambulance. Already he was thinking about what the next step should be.

shutterstock_333436727 Shutterstock / sfam_photo Shutterstock / sfam_photo / sfam_photo

Helen had a brain-stem haemorrhage. When we got to hospital, first in A&E and then in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), I sought out those in charge.
‘When the time comes, and you’ve reached the place I’ve already reached,’ I told them, ‘I need to talk to the transplant co-ordinator.’

Soon Ray’s daughter arrived from Dublin to be with him. His colleagues stood with him, gave him comfort. He had already made his decision.

“We signed on the dotted line that afternoon,” he says.

By 2.30am Helen’s organs had been removed. The transplants took place the next day.

Helen’s donation saved at least three lives. Only the bare minimum of information about what happened next is known to Ray, but he does know a little.

Helen’s liver went to a man, a young father in his 30s, who didn’t have long to live in Dublin, I know that. Her kidneys went to a man and a woman who had been on dialysis. Her heart valves have been preserved. More than likely they’ll go to a child.

Ray’s wife was of a rare blood group, making her donation all the more valuable. Achieving a transplant is made significantly more difficult when you have a rare blood type.

Speaking to Ray, you get the impression of a man who is remarkably at peace.

I am at peace, but I think that has a lot to do with the donations. There are three, possibly four people out there who have a new life. My wife isn’t lying in a hospital bed, brain-damaged. That consoles me – there is genuine peace in that. Helen died in that chair, I know that now.

Helen was 54 when she died. It may surprise the layman to know that the quality of the organs is what’s at stake in a transplant situation, not the subject’s age.

Ray was unclear about whether or not Helen was a donor at the time he volunteered her for donation (as it transpired, she was the holder of not one but two donor cards). As next-of-kin he was under no illusions about the decision he had to make. His story emphasises the importance of knowing your loved one’s wishes regarding their organs should the worst come to pass.

Five months later, he admits that not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his wife, and of the gift she gave.

“We were married for six years. Barely a week before Helen died we agreed that they were the happiest years of both our lives. She was the love of my life,” he says.

My wife saved three people. Now I know that she’s above, pulling the strings for me. There is a lot of sadness, a lot of wistfulness to my life now.
But there’s also a lot of joy, a lot of hope.

There can be no greater endorsement of being a donor than that.

Read: Why Myles needs a kidney

Read: “Your organs are no use to anyone in the ground” – a donor’s kindness has given this girl her life back

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