In January 2008, a road traffic accident in Manchester tragically claimed the life of a young man.
Due to patient confidentiality, not much can be revealed about him, other than the incredible fact that in death, this 20-year-old man saved the lives of six strangers.
This extraordinary feat was possible thanks to his decision to be an organ donor.
One of the people whose life was saved by that selfless hero is appealing to the public to consider organ donation and make their decision known to their next-of-kin.
Tam Donaldson is a project manager with North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust’s Digital Programme Team, managing various projects such as a new system for the electronic referral for complex medicines.
The 46-year-old who lives in Middleton St. George with her family was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare chronic condition which attacks the bile ducts inside and outside the liver.
There is no known cure, although some people’s conditions can be managed and relieved by medication, in severe cases a liver transplant is required.
Diagnosed at just 21, following a year of extensive tests and clinical reviews, Tam was eventually told she would need a liver transplant.
Put on the waiting list in November 2007, doctors warned Tam that the coming Christmas could well be her last should a donor not be located within three-to-six months.
Tam picks up the story when she received a special phone call in January 2008 while living near York.
“I froze when I got the call that a suitable donor organ had been found”, she said. “I was taken straight to St James’s University Hospital which carried out the operation quickly as at that time, we only had 17 hours to use the liver.
“Waking up the next day with 13 lines running into my body was surreal and I struggled to emotionally accept that I had someone else’s organ inside my body.
“I refused to look at my stomach and the surgical wound for five days, until I plucked up the courage.
“There was a sense of guilt as well – I was happy to be saved, but I knew the price my donor paid.
“I’m alive because of an organ donor.
“I’d encourage everyone to really, truly think about donation and to make sure their family know about their decision.
I hope my donor would be proud
Since the donation, Tam has gone from strength to strength and leads a normal everyday life. Choosing not to drink alcohol out of respect to the donor and his gift, Tam eats a moderately controlled diet she likens to a pregnant woman (such as not eating shellfish) and is immuno-deficient meaning some medicines are unsuitable and she took extra precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She says: “I’m thriving. Before I was too tired to hold a knife and fork. Now I live a full, happy life, work full time and have a family. There’s nothing that I can’t do.”
Asked what she would say to her donor, Tam said: “I have written to his family to express my thanks for the gift their son gave me.
“If I could talk to him, I would tell him about the ripple effect he has had. Both my sister and husband were inspired to retrain and work in the NHS in clinical roles after seeing what I went through and how well the treatment went.
“I’d also tell him about the people who have decided to become organ donors after speaking with me. It’s one of the most selfless things anyone can do and it’s a gift that the recipient and their family will be forever grateful for.
“Every day matters to me, every piece of music, every moment with the people I love, waking up in the morning – it all matters.
“I hope he would be proud of the life he allowed me to live.”
Tam outlined her three principal feelings on surviving as relief, peace of mind and the ongoing sense of responsibility towards her donor, a man she never met but will never forget.
Leave them certain
Dr. Tara Mane, clinical lead for organ donation at North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, said: “I can’t imagine anyone could hear Tam’s story and not be moved.
“Just hearing about her life and how much the donation has meant to her and her family is incredible. Tam has nothing but respect for her donor and I can see why.
“Organ donors are heroes. They save lives and their donation benefits generations to come.
“Considering your personal position on organ donation, making the formal declaration on the organ donation register and making sure your loved ones are aware of your decision is crucial.
“It just takes just two minutes to register your decision online. Two minutes that could save up to nine lives.”
Register your decision
Monday 18 to Sunday 24 September is Organ Donation Week. During the week, the NHS is aiming to encourage at least 25,000 people to register their decision for the first time.
While the organ donor register operates on an opt-out system, your next of kin will always be asked permission about donation.
Visit the organ donation website to register your decision.