One Saturday lunchtime last month, I went to a local seaside village with my best friend to quaff champagne and chat. It was quite an occasion, because it was the first afternoon that I'd had to myself since my two-month-old twins, Eleanor and Chloe, were born. I'd booked in a maternity nurse for a few hours to look after them, while our two-year-old son, Oscar, who has cystic fibrosis, was on holiday with my parents-in-law.
I felt like a pig in shit as I told my friend how Andy, my 43-year-old husband, and I were finally coming out of the other side of a stressful nine months of coping with Oscar's condition alongside managing my pregnancy and, later, the babies. Life was really getting good again, I told her. The girls were starting to sleep more, which made us both less tired, and we were at last settling into some kind of routine.
We walked home together, my friend and I, at about 3.30pm and no sooner had I stepped into the dining room than I noticed a police car outside and two police officers walking up my path. Andy, I was to learn, had been hit by a car while cycling. He'd been resuscitated at the scene, following a cardiac arrest, and airlifted to hospital. I should get there quickly, they advised.
On arrival, I was escorted straight into the relatives' room. Being a dentist, I have a certain amount of medical knowledge and so the first thing I asked the doctor was what his Glasgow Coma Scale – which would indicate the scale of his brain activity – was, and when he answered "three", I knew we were in trouble. Then he told me the MRI scan they'd done on Andy's brain revealed almost categorically that he was irrecoverable.
Andy didn't look close to death. He didn't even look that damaged. "There's nothing you can do," the doctor said – but I felt there was something I could do. "What about donating his organs?" I asked. You are so utterly confused and bewildered in a situation like that, but it was the one thing I felt that I could concentrate on – and it was something positive. "Oh, you don't need to worry about that just yet," the nurse said. But I felt I did, and I knew for certain that Andy would agree.
I knew it for two reasons. First, people with cystic fibrosis often require a lung transplant later in life, and that alone had prompted Andy and I to put our names on the NHS Organ Donation Register. And second, I'm a member of the local Women's Institute and it had recently held a meeting on improving organ donation. There, I'd learnt that lots of people who are on the register never actually get to have their organs donated because they fail to discuss their wishes with their families, who – at the point of their death – just can't handle the idea and refuse consent. I had come home full of how Andy and I needed to make our views clear to our wider families, and Andy agreed. Not in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be experiencing it first-hand just a few months down the line. But here I was, and in the knowledge of Andy's impending death, I was determined to respect his wishes.
By 9pm, when Andy's parents arrived at the hospital, I had already started the ball rolling. They were very supportive and when he was pronounced dead later that evening, the wheels were very much in motion. In fact, throughout the night and most of the following day, Andy remained in his hospital bed being ventilated so that they could maximise the quantity of organs being donated.
Andy's major organs saved a total of five lives. His heart went to a teenager who had been on an urgent waiting list in hospital. His lungs went to a middle-aged gentleman with a life-threatening lung condition. His kidneys went to two middle-aged men who had been on the waiting list for six and seven years respectively – the latter of whom had been on a dialysis machine. And a woman got his bowels, stomach, liver and pancreas. A letter I received a couple of weeks ago said that all the recipients appear to have responded well to the transplants, though not all are out of hospital.
In time, I may find out more about these people whose lives Andy saved. The way it works is that if they decide to write to me, they can do so through the Organ Donation scheme. I can respond in the same way. That way, we never know names or addresses. While it would be nice to receive such a letter, I don't feel I need to hear from them or be thanked. I'm just glad that five families are not in the same position as we are.
People have asked if the organ donation has helped with my grief. But grief isn't a concept I've quite grasped yet because I still haven't had the space to digest what's happened. The twins are very much dependent on me – I'm still breastfeeding – and Oscar has needs that mean I can't palm him off on to others. There are a few friends and family who know what to do, but I need to run the show. So for now, I'm just focusing on carrying on for them. I keep going because I have no other choice.
I'm not suggesting that I've escaped grief altogether, and when it hits, it can hit so hard. Andy and I had fallen in love very quickly when we met five years ago. I was 26 and he was 37 and it was quite a whirlwind. We moved in together after just six months and by the time we married two years later, I was three months pregnant. It was a great shock for us to discover that Oscar had cystic fibrosis – a condition that means that he has shorter-than-average life expectancy and that we, as parents, never got a break from caring for him. But although Andy and I weren't always in agreement about how much protection to give him, we tackled it very much as a team, and Andy could not have been a more brilliant dad – fun, caring and very hands-on. He even gave up work to care full-time for Oscar, while I worked part-time as a dentist. I don't think I realised just how much he did until now.
But I am the kind of person who deals with things by finding solutions – by creating as many positives as I can out of a crappy situation – and in that way, the organ donation has certainly helped. It's the same reason I set up a JustGiving page for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust the day Andy died. People whom I knew well, a little and not at all, have been phenomenally kind and we've raised £13,000 so far for a cause close to Andy's heart and a brilliant charity.
It's the same reason that I'm telling my story here, too. I'm not the kind of person who would normally tell such a personal story so publicly. But my experience has already made some more of my friends go on the Organ Donation Register, and if I can get a few more people to do the same, then that's something. And if I can raise awareness of the fact that loads of transplants never actually take place because family members of those on the register don't know how much it means to them, then even better. Ultimately, I just want to feel that at least some good has come out of this. µ
For more information about cystic fibrosis, visit cysticfibrosis.org.uk. For more information about the NHS Organ Donation Register, visit organdonation.nhs.uk. For Katy's JustGiving page, visit justgiving.com/Charltonfamily.
Interview by Kate HilpernReuse content