Part two: Heart ‘two’ heart with neighbours who received organ transplants 12 years apart

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Gerri Jackson on her wedding day with her friend Michele. Both women (who live five minutes from each other) received heart transplants thanks to donors.

Michele McGarry and Gerri Jackson only vaguely knew each other a few years ago. They lived five minutes apart in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough and they had some family connections, but when Michele was told she needed a heart transplant on that fateful day a few years ago Gerri would become a very important part of Michele’s life. Earlier this Organ Donation Week we spoke to Michele, now this is Gerri’s story:

“I was 16 when I started getting flu-like symptoms – coughing and shortness of breath. I went to A&E and after a lot of tests I was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. To look at me you wouldn’t have known there was anything wrong, but that was the start of a six month stay in Craigavon hospital followed by a heart transplant in Great Ormond Street children’s hospital. I spent Christmas and New Year in hospital when I should have been going out with my friends and studying for my GCSEs.

It was a really tough time. My mummy died when I was 12 and I really missed her. We didn’t know until afterwards that Mummy had had the same condition as me. She was only 42, which seemed very old to me at the time, but now I realise she was a young woman. So many people with conditions like ours are dying waiting on transplants, yet there are bodies buried or cremated every day, complete with organs and tissues that could have been used to save so many lives.

I’ve heard people say that there’s no point in signing the register because they smoke so “no-one would want these lungs”, or they drink so “no-one would want my liver!” but that couldn’t be further from the truth! A burn victim could get a skin graft, a blind person could get to see their grandchildren for the first time, a baby could get a new set of lungs or a child could get a new heart, like I did and go on to live a full life!

I feel better now than I ever have in my life, I got my transplant at 16 and now I’m coming 31, all because someone took the time to tick a box to say they would be happy to be an organ donor. Every day I’m still amazed at the medical science that means organ donation is possible, and also the care I’ve received from every single doctor and nurse that I’ve encountered throughout my whole journey.

You could have a 30 second or a 30 minute conversation with your family about organ donation, but all that matters is that you have the conversation! My wedding favours two years ago were organ donation sign-up cards – that was an extra 120 people who took just a few minutes out of their day to sign the organ donation register and each donor has the potential to save up to nine lives.

Two quotes that really resonate with me are “don’t take your organs to heaven, heaven knows we need them here” and my personal favourite “live life and give life” – I got that one tattooed after my transplant.

Even though Michele only lives five minutes away from me, I only met her when she went into heart failure and was faced with the decision about whether or not to go on the transplant waiting list. A member of her family asked me to speak to her and at that stage I had had my new heart for 11 years so I just told her “get it done!” Michele thinks I helped her but she has helped me more than she knows. It’s hard for other people to understand the daily challenges so it’s amazing to have Michele to message and know that she’s just around the corner.”

Family still have the final say when it comes to donating and research has shown that 9 out of 10 families agree to donation when they know what their loved one’s wishes were. Only half of families agree to organ donation if they don’t know their loved one’s decision.

There are around 115 people on the transplant waiting list here and sadly every year in NI 10-15 people die on the waiting list.

Only 1% of people die in circumstances where donation is possible, therefore every donation is precious.

You can register your decision on the NHS Organ Donation Register at www.organdonationni.info/register or by calling the NHS Donor Line 0300 123 23 23. Lines are open 24 hours a day all year round.

Read Michele’s story which we shared earlier this week here.