Organ donation: How a special bond has blossomed between Yorkshire kidney recipient and her donor's family

Gill Tomkinson has established a special bond with the family of her organ donor. They share their story as the Be A Hero campaign raises awareness of the donation process. Laura Drysdale reports.

Eileen and Stan Stephenson with a photograph of their daughter Katie, whose organs helped four people.

The bloom of the golden rose bush that is planted in the garden of Gill Tomkinson is her gesture of recognition to the stranger who changed her life. It is a fitting memorial - from a florist of 41 years to a young woman whose favourite colour was yellow, though Gill needs no reminder of the precious gift that was given to her by Katie Stephenson, back in 2006. It is with her each day.

Gill, now 56, was one of four people who received an organ from 19-year-old Katie when she died days after suddenly contracting pneumonia. Thirteen years on, and having established a special bond with her donor’s family, Gill continues to make the most of the new lease provided to her through one of Katie’s kidneys.

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“I think the biggest thing I can do in her memory and for her parents is just to keep myself as well as I can, as fit as I can,” she says. “I live life to the full. I just do everything and I’d like to think in the future I can look back and think I’ve fulfilled my life. You do after anything like that, re-look at your life with fresh eyes and think I’ve been given this second chance and I’m going to make the most of it.”

Gill Tomkinson received a kidney from Katie.

First meeting

It is rare that an organ recipient will meet the relatives of their donor, but in the months that followed the transplant, and having exchanged anonymous letters through the procedure coordinators, both Gill and Katie’s parents Stan and Eileen were corresponding with the team about wanting to meet - and staff arranged for that to happen.

“She walked into the room and I turned around and looked at her,” Eileen, 66, recalls. “I said to my husband this is the reason why, because here was a woman standing before us that our daughter had basically saved. I felt relief.”

Donor card

Katie’s parents had given doctors consent for her organs to be used, as they sat beside her hospital bed in Hull nearly two years earlier, and a transplant team were called from Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust (LTHT). Their daughter, a nursery nurse, had carried a donor card from the age of 12. “The decision wasn’t ours, it was Katie’s,” says Eileen. “She made that choice at the age of 12 and what right had we got to say no? That was the very last thing that, as parents, we could have done for Katie.”

More than two weeks prior to her death, Katie was taken ill, coming home from work with flu-like symptoms. The following morning, noticing her breathing had become laboured, Eileen took her daughter to the local walk-in centre and from there she was taken to Hull Royal Infirmary (HRI) by blue light. Doctors told the family that Katie had pneumonia and she was placed into intensive care. Following secondary complications including a collapsed lung, and a brain stroke, she died fifteen days later.

Transplant list

It was the early hours of a Sunday morning when Gill, of Broomfleet in East Yorkshire, got a call to say a suitable donor had been found. She had been on the transplant list for just under two years, following a diagnosis of renal failure. Gill had begun to feel unwell suddenly around the time of her 40th birthday with a lack of energy and loss of appetite.

Tests revealed she had only had one kidney since birth and this was now small and not functioning well. She was put on dialysis, but told her only chance of a normal life was a transplant. “It was a shock but I didn’t sit at home moping about,” she says. “I thought there’s people worse off than me, which there were. I’ve got quite a positive attitude and a sense of humour, which helped.”

Helping others

Gill had to temporarily give up her horticulture work, something she was able to return to after her transplant, but managed to volunteer two mornings a week at a horticultural nursery for people with special needs and learning disabilities. “That helped me through,” she says. “Even though I was terminally ill, I was working alongside people with really challenging difficulties and traumas, and in a way, medically, they were in a lot worse position than I was. I wanted to work to help people and they helped me as well.”

She made the journey to Leeds, with husband John for the transplant procedure - and was discharged within five days. “It’s a little bit of a numb feeling because you know it is going to be life changing and yet it is a mixture of emotions. You’re happy but then you’re thinking somebody as a result of my hopeful happiness is having a really bad day, because they’re having the news that they didn’t want.”

A success

Behind the scenes, some 50 people are involved in making a successful transplant happen, a complex process that LTHT is highlighting as part of its Be A Hero campaign. Supported by this newspaper, since its launch in 2015, the campaign aims to raise awareness of organ donation and inspire more people to sign the register in the region.

A transplant co-ordination team see every journey through from start to finish, with NHS staff going through stages including identifying a potential donor, checking their eligibility to donate, gaining family consent and matching a donor organ with a compatible recipient.

“The stages that go into successfully transplanting an organ is incredible, and the team work tirelessly to make sure that journey is as easy as possible for the patients and their families,” says Claire Tordoff, a clinical lead in organ donation.

“Although the time frame for an organ transplant is very small, the number of people involved in each single transplant is huge, and we want to demonstrate and recognise those individuals responsible both for saving the lives of those on the transplant waiting list, but also supporting those courageous families who consent to organ donation.”

Mixed emotions

Gill remains emotional looking back at the procedure today. “It was a very difficult time. It’s strange because you have a feeling of relief but also it still upsets me because you know somebody has lost someone so it is a really emotional thing.”

Still now, Eileen and Stan and their five other children look back in shock at how quickly Katie became unwell. “I have often said that the morning I took her to the walk-in centre, if someone had said to me ‘your daughter is dying’, I would never have believed them,” says Eileen. “But she was.”

Lasting legacy

Like Gill, they are full of praise for the transplant team and they take comfort in the fact that Katie helped others, including a three-day-old baby girl who received her heart valve. “When I look at Gill, I think my daughter has given her a life back,” says Eileen. “She even says herself she would never have been able to have that, but it’s nothing of us, it’s all of

Katie...It’s a really, really special bond we have [with Gill]. Although we aren’t in regular contact (they have met up on several occasions), we always know that the other is at the end of the phone, and we pick up instantly where we left off.”

The couple, from Hull, have raised £28,000 for HRI’s intensive care unit in memory of their “bubbly, full of life and kind” daughter, whilst highlighting how organ donation can transform - and save - lives. “We really do advocate organ donation,” says Stan, 72. “We are immensely proud of what Katie has achieved. Her memory lives on through Gill and all the other people that she has helped.”