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Cumbrian woman's plea for all to join organ donor register

It has been five years, but the pain and grief at losing her partner is never far away for Alex Clough.

Organ donor register photo
Alex Clough and Stewart Richardson in 1996

Stewart Richardson was just 44 when his life support machine was switched off after he had suddenly collapsed with a brain haemorrhage.

Medics then worked swiftly to take his organs for transplant operations that would return others to health.

Provide complete strangers with a whole new life.

“When they realised he wasn’t responding to things – when he had a tube taken out and they realised he couldn’t breathe for himself and realised he was brain dead, they asked about organ donation,” she remembers.

“Lynne, the transplant co-odinator, was absolutely lovely.

“We had actually discussed it before, me and Stew, when we were at Maryport Blues Festival and we both agreed it was a fine thing to do.

“There were no qualms about it, why not go on to help someone else?

“You see programmes on TV, it either affects you or not. You watch it, or switch it off.

“We just had to promise each other that we were definitely dead and there was absolutely no chance of being revived.”

But then it came to the actual moment of making that decision.

“I could hear his heart beating and his lungs were breathing and it was very difficult to believe he was not there any more,” she says quietly.

“I can’t say it made me feel any better, but it is good to know that lots of good things came from that terrible time.

“I felt it was a good thing to do. It made me feel... better is not the right word... comforted, slightly.

“It was difficult really. If there is a heart beating and lungs breathing is the brain screaming out don’t touch me?

“The most difficult thing was leaving him switched on and not seeing him again.

“I couldn’t get past that he was going to be switched off.

“Taking the organs was fine in my mind, so long as he was dead, that was a good thing. That was a good thing.”

Alex and Stew were together for 13 and a half years. We lived together all that time, it was brilliant, we never had a row or a cross word.

“He was so well-liked by people, they could not accommodate everyone in the church at his funeral.”

Stew, a roofer, was known to many as Richie – bass player with semi-pro rock bands Wolf, Leviathan and Blackaxe who played across north and west Cumbria and he even supported heavy metal giants Scorpions.

Her conversation is scattered with sighs and sobs, smiles and giggles as she remembers her life with Stew and its heartbreaking end.

Heartbreaking, but not tragic, because his decision to be an organ donor has made such a difference to others.

Alex knows who has benefited and has even met one of the people given life by Stew.

“It was amazing the amount of people that his organs helped really,” says the 48-year-old from Hayton, near Brampton.

“They took his kidneys, liver, heart valves, we only asked for nothing to happen to his eyes.

“Hugh, who has got Stew’s pancreas and kidney was the first man to undergo such a double swap, and he’s lovely.

“I met him last year and the difference the transplant operation has made to his life is absolutely incredible. He never takes a day for granted

“I think his heart valves went to help children.

“An Irish bull farmer was another recipient and is dedicating a cup for the best bull to Stew.”

Alex has signed up on the NHS organ donor register, and says: “I have told all my family not to keep me alive, but to let me go and donate my organs.

“There should not be any reason why people do not want their organs to be used after their death.

“Everyone has to consider it.

“You have to think it is your loved one waiting for a donor.”

In Cumbria there are 45 people who need a new kidney, liver or lungs. And they know there is a very real danger a match will not be found in time.

According to Government figures, there are 3,000 transplants in the UK each year.

But 25 per cent of all potential recipients will never get as far as the operating theatre.

Every year 1,000 people are removed from transplant lists because their health has deteriorated to the point where surgery is no longer an option.

Britain has a well-publicised shortage of organs, created by increased demand rather than a drop in donors.

More people are being assessed as suitable for a transplant thanks to a higher life expectancy.

Years ago someone might have been told that at 65, they were too old to be considered for a transplant.

Now people in their 80s will be put on the list.

An NHS taskforce set up to tackle the donor shortage has chosen the Spanish transplant programme as the model to follow.

In Britain only 13 out of every million people donate organs, whereas in Spain it’s 35 in every million.

In the UK, when a suitable donor is identified and their family is asked to sign a consent form, the answer is ‘yes’ roughly 50 per cent of the time.

Yet ex-pats living in Spain almost always agree.

NHS bosses have concluded there is something more persuasive about the Spanish system and have recommended that hospitals across the country set up transplant committees to improve the British approach to transplants.

Dr Colin Rodgers, a consultant anaesthetist at Cumberland Infirmary, is north and west Cumbria’s clinical lead for organ transplantation.

He will be a member of the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust committee once it’s formed.

Alongside an independent chairman, other doctors, nurses, the hospital chaplaincy and transplant patients.

The committee’s remit will be to keep Cumbria on track with a national target to increase the number of donors by 50 per cent within five years.

Dr Rodgers knows it’s a big ask.

In this country, transplants are still seen as an unusual event rather than the norm, by patients and medical staff.

As a result, the question of organ donation is not considered often enough, which means potential donors can go unrecognised.

Dr Rodgers explained: “We need to be more open about transplants, make it a subject that’s more acceptable to talk about.

“If you are 80 and on the waiting list for a kidney and a kidney from an 85-year-old becomes available, you would not really be worrying about whether that kidney will last you for the next 25 years.

“You could even consider using the kidney for much younger patients, to keep them going until a better match is available.

“Part of our job is to increase the number of referrals and there are actually very few people who would automatically be ruled out.

“We need to get away from thinking that nobody could possibly be interested in organs from certain people, because they might well be.”

That’s not to say the seriously ill will be eyed-up as just a collection of spare body parts.

Dr Rodgers added: “Every potential donor is a patient first and foremost.

“They only become a donor after they die and right up until that point their welfare and treatment is the number one priority.”

Changing attitudes aside, recent reports of a kidney transplant ‘revolution’ may boost the cause.

The most common type of donor is what is known as a ‘beating heart donor’ – someone who has been declared dead because there is no brain stem activity and who is only being kept alive by artificial means.

The so-called revolution concerns the other type – a cardiac donor whose organs are taken after their heart has stopped beating.

This happens when doctors, relatives and sometimes the patient themselves, decide to withdraw treatment.

A course of action only agreed after it has been determined the patient will not survive.

Since the 1970s almost all kidney transplants have taken place following brain death.

Medics supposed that kidneys harvested by the other method were inadequate, but research published recently in the medical journal Lancet disputes this theory.

The study claims that cardiac donor organs last as long, and are of the same standard, as beating heart donor organs. But there is more to consider than the perceived quality of the organ.

The conditions needed to donate after death are difficult to meet.

Organs do not remain viable for long and the countdown starts the minute treatment is withdrawn because that’s when the body starts to shut down.

The window of opportunity is just four hours for kidneys and in many cases it closes before a patient dies.

Dr Rodgers said: “Death is a process and it takes its own course.”

Then there’s the fact that a transplant team has to be in place and ready to operate immediately.

Not easy to arrange given the uncertainty about when they will be needed.

It’s good news that kidneys from cardiac donors could be more widely used, but it’s far from being the only solution to the organ shortage.

Professionals are working on other possibilities but they need assistance from the public.

Signing up for the organ donor register is the first step.

The second, and most important thing to do, is talk to your family and explain your decision.

Dr Rodgers said: “I’m on the register and as far as I’m concerned you can use any part of me for anything you want.

“Not everyone feels like that though and I do understand why.

“At the end of the day the final call is down to relatives, it has to be.

“If your relatives are against organ donation you need to convince them of your beliefs while you are still able to do so.”

This week, The Cumberland News is carrying a leaflet from the NHS inviting our readers to join the organ donor register.

To allow the organs of a loved one to be used after their death is a huge, emotional decision.

It will not heal a broken heart or make the grieving go any quicker, but it provides hope, life and future for the loved ones of others.

The decision agreed by Stew and Alex at Maryport has helped her, a little: “I miss him so much. I really miss him.

“He was always helping people, at any time at all. There was not a bad word to be said about him and it carries on after his death, which is typical of him.”

To find out more about organ donation visit www.organdonation.nhs.uk

Have your say

every person in the uk,should be automatically put on the organ donation list.

Posted by george on 29 August 2010 at 15:33

Thank you - a poignant & powerful article. I've joined the register.

Posted by Trish Hutcheson on 29 August 2010 at 14:58

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