“Thank you for giving me my life back,” says Katie Piper when I ask her what she’d like to say to the anonymous young man whose cornea helped restore her sight.
The philanthropist and TV presenter was blinded in her left eye when her ex-boyfriend threw sulphuric acid in her face in March 2008. Katie, who was 24 at the time, also suffered severe burns to her face and neck and was placed in an induced coma in intensive care for 12 days. She had to wear a plastic pressure mask for 23 hours a day for two years and was fed through a tube in her stomach because reforming scar tissue in her throat restricted her ability to eat and drink.
I meet Katie in central London where she is having her make-up done for a photo shoot to promote the National Transplant Week campaign she’s supporting.
“It’s really important to me because I’ve benefitted from organ donation twice,” she tells me, while her make-up artist busies herself with a foundation brush. Katie's face is heart-shaped and her eyes, which are closed for most of our interview, obediently awaiting the make-up brush, are a startling turquoise.
She tells me that after the attack her burns were so severe, surgeons had to remove all four layers of skin. Her face would later be rebuilt using dermal substitute Matriderm and skin grafts, but in the interim doctors used cadaver skin, which is donated skin and tissue, to preserve the area and prevent any infection spreading.
“You have all different patches, so you might have Asian, black and white skin all stapled together. Aesthetically it doesn’t look good but if there was a shortage and they hadn’t had that skin then obviously I would have died,” she says, matter-of-factly.
As well has the cadaver skin that kept her alive immediately after the attack, Katie has also had two cornea transplants to restore her eyesight.
“I think it’s really difficult having lived with really good eyesight for most of my life and then having that taken away from me. It’s an injury you think you’ll never be able to restore,” she says. “When I found out that actually there is hope, that maybe they’ll be able to find a donor, it was an amazing feeling. It’s a great gift to be able to give someone.”
Unfortunately, corneas in particular are in short supply. At the end of March 2014, 88 per cent of those on the NHS Organ Donor Register indicated a willingness to donate all organs and tissue, including kidneys, pancreas, heart, lungs, liver and corneas. Of those who were not willing to donate all organs, the majority (88 per cent) did not wish to donate their corneas. This equates to 10.6 per cent of all people on the register choosing not to donate their eyes.
“People think that the eyes are like the window to the soul,” says Katie. “But if you’ve passed away, it’s a great legacy and your family can know that it goes on to help somebody else.”
Every year in the UK, only around 5,000 people die in circumstances where they can donate, making every potential donor precious. However, just 45 per cent of families agree to organ donation going ahead if they are unaware of their loved one’s decision to be a donor. This figure rises to 95 per cent if families know that donating their organs was something that the deceased wanted, making it all the more important to tell relatives your donation decision.
Katie tells me that, all being well, she shouldn’t need any more transplants but says that having been on the receiving end, she’s all the more committed to donating herself. At the end of our interview I guiltily admit I’m not on the organ donor register. “Why not?” she asks. “I don’t like thinking about my own death,” I reply, shamefacedly.
“I see it as a positive thing to do with your life,” she says with a smile. “All these people that are eco-friendly and care about the environment and being resourceful, well, this is the ultimate way to be quite resourceful!”
I’m sold and sign up the minute I get home.