“I donated a kidney to a woman I’ll never meet”

WHEN a badly injured racing pigeon landed on Dr Gill Owens’ doorstep it came with an unwritten message that’s helped her make sense of the love and loss that have weaved throughout her life.

Her sister-in-law Anita hadn’t just been her brother’s wife, she was the best friend she’s known since she was nine, who she would do anything for.

When Anita fell ill with kidney disease she watched her bounce back following a kidney transplant but Anita tragically died of cancer a few months after the birth of her first grandchild. The birth prompted Gill, who does not to have children of her own, to give a life to a desperately ill woman she’d never met by donating one of her kidneys.

Now the lecturer at Teesside University is committed to spreading the world about the NHS’s Altruistic Programme which enables people to donate an organ to a stranger in need.

She’s been invited to join the national Public Engagement Group for NHS Blood and Transplant, which is part of a larger taskforce helping to deliver the 2020 strategy on organ donation and transplantation which meets in London regularly.

And she is working with Dr Caroline Wroe, from the renal department at The James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, on research into ‘trigger points’ to examine the factors that lead people into making the decision to donate an organ and the pair will be giving a public talk on the topic on Wednesday, November 11.

The fragility of life is all to familiar to Gill, whose her husband, Steve, died of Lymphoma aged just 34 when she was 30, and her father succumbed to throat cancer four years later.

“My life was shattered, all those hopes and dreams we had together were over. I had a very small group of close friends who I trusted and Anita was one of them.

“We lived round the corner from each other and often I’d get home from work and find a cake waiting for me. She was a very kind and caring individual.

“When Anita was diagnosed with kidney disease I immediately told her she could have one of mine. I loved her so much. She said “that’s great” but George (Anita’s husband and Gill’s brother) had put himself forward and he turned out to be a match.

“I’ve always been in awe of my two older brothers and I just thought that what he did was such an act of love.”

Gill, now 49, said that what still makes her emotional is the image of her two teenage nieces waiting for news of both their parents undergoing surgery at the same time. The operations were a huge success and Anita’s health dramatically improved until, in 2011 she was diagnosed with the same type of cancer as Steve.

The birth of Anita’s first grandchild therefore was bittersweet as she only enjoyed the first few months of baby Ellen’s life.

After so much heartache, the experience was a defining one for Gill. “It made me realise that although I don’t have children myself, I can give life in another way.

“I always think things through and I counsel myself,” explained the senior lecturer in leadership and management who has a first class degree and a doctorate in psychology. “One question led to another and I wondered whether I could put my family through this but I kept coming back to it.”

She decided to register and tests revealed she had two equally healthy kidneys which meant either one could be potentially be donated.

“I’d always wanted my kidney to go to a child because I had not had children, but Sister Alison Callaway from The James Cook University Hospital, where all the testing took place, made me realise that a life is a life.”

Gill, from Yarm, Stockton, had to undergo psychological testing and convince an assessor from the Human Tissue Authority of her reasons As soon as all the documentation was complete she was told a match had been found – a ‘mature’ woman from the North-West whose name she will never know.

Gill’s first words when she came round from the keyhole surgery at the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle, in March were about about the recipient and the transplant co-ordinator said: “It’s worked”.

“As well as encouraging more people to think about altruistic organ donation I also want to highlight the incredible effort and skill of the medical teams involved. I had a nice sleep and a few weeks off work but what they do is incredible,” she said.

A few weeks after the operation Gill received an email from Sister Callaway to say the recipient had written her a letter – a move that came as a complete shock.

“If you are giving to a stranger you are giving to a stranger so it took me a bit of time to get my head around it. I took it to a park and after reading it I cried for an hour and a half. It wasn’t a long letter, but it was one of huge, huge gratitude. This woman had been on the waiting list for 10 years. She had given up hope.”

In April 2015 there were 6919 people on the organ donor waiting list in the UK, each waiting an average of 2 and a half years for an organ to be donated from someone who has sadly died.

One way of improving these waiting times is through living kidney donation and it is possible to donate a kidney to a friend or relative if you have a matching ’tissue type’ and pass the fitness tests.

Living kidneys last longer and patients who get them have improved survival as they don’t have to spend years waiting on dialysis (artificial kidney treatment). By the end of 2014 more than 400 people had become altruistic kidney donors in the UK.

Gill added: “Two days after I got the letter something surprising and amazing happened. I was at home with my husband, Terry, when he called me outside where there was a badly injured racing pigeon. We Googled what to do, named it Billy, and I nursed it back to health.

“We tried to set it free but it kept on returning and the owner didn’t want it and now lives under the solar panels on the roof.

“The bird that landed on our doorstep had come from the same city as the recipient, which was unbelievable. I felt that this was the missing piece, I’d been given something to nurture and care for at last.”

An audience with Dr Caroline Wroe and Dr Gill Owens is being held at Teesside University in Middlesbrough off Southfield Road on Wednesday, November 11, in the Centuria Building. Complimentary refreshments will be served from 5.30pm, with the free lecture starting at 6pm. To book call Jane Hutchinson on 01642-738233 or email events@tees.ac.uk