'We didn't think our daughter would reach her 14th birthday, but a stranger donated his heart and saved her life'
Belfast mum-of-three Catherine Mulholland tells Una Brankin how her teenage daughter Lauren is now thriving after a life-saving transplant and why they feel so grateful to the Children's Heartbeat Trust.
At an undisclosed location in the UK this Christmas, a family will be sitting down to dinner without one of their loved ones, a 40-year-old man who died from a brain injury in the autumn of 2015.
It will be their second Christmas without him, but the first in the comforting knowledge that his heart is beating in a young transplant recipient who would have died without it. The family don't know much more about the 15 year-old girl but, one of these days, a letter from her grateful mother will land on their doormat, forwarded by the transplant team at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
Catherine Mulholland (40), from west Belfast, had been told at her ante-natal clinic in 2001 that, although she had high blood pressure, her first baby was developing well in the womb and was expected to be "a good big child" at birth. But Lauren arrived at 41 weeks, tiny and failing to thrive.
"As a baby, she was hard to feed and cried all the time - we had to drive her around and round to get her to sleep," says Catherine. "She always seemed tired and she was tested for all these abnormalities, like spina bifida and cystic fibrosis, but the results came back clear.
"Then when she was three, she had an X-ray which showed up an enlargement of her heart and she was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy. That was very scary for us, but at least we knew what was wrong. We had to keep a close eye on her and she had to have check-ups every six months after that."
Lauren was referred to the transplant unit at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After surgery to remove and examine a piece of her heart muscle, a consultant told Catherine and her husband Damien that Lauren would need a heart transplant at some stage. But medics couldn't tell when.
As Lauren grew up, the couple were open with her, and her siblings Leah (14) and Declan (10), about her condition.
"She was always so small she'd get people looking at her when we were out, but she wasn't treated any differently at school - she'd been to nursery school with most of the wee ones at the primary, so they'd grown up with her," Catherine recalls. "She was seven when we were told she wouldn't survive without a new heart. There was pressure on her lungs, too, and we didn't want her to have to go through a double transplant. We didn't want to leave it too late."
For over 10 years, Lauren continued to be monitored but by April 2015, her condition deteriorated and she became very poorly.
"We'd always explained every step to her along the way," Catherine says. "She coped okay and battled on. Then she started getting black-outs and had to be put on a 24-hour monitor.
"She never asked me if she was going to die, but she did say something was going to have to happen, to change, because her wee body was deteriorating."
The following June, the Mulhollands had to make the journey once again to the Freeman Hospital for a review. Lauren was put to the top of the transplant waiting list and was admitted to the Clark Clinic at Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast in October 2015 for constant bed rest, her heart on the wane.
From that point, it became an agonising waiting game for the Mulhollands to see when a suitable heart would become available - if at all. So they were extremely grateful for the support offered to them by the Children's Heartbeat Trust charity.
Catherine says: "It was a very stressful time for us but the charity brought a breath of fresh air into our world. They let us know of the help available to us, as a family, for Lauren's journey ahead and they even held a Minions (characters from the film Despicable Me) party for Lauren's birthday on the ward with her friends and family.
"Time was running out for Lauren and we thought this would be her last birthday," explains her mum. "All we could do was hope and pray, with the help of our family and friends, that her gift of life would come."
Twenty weeks later, on October 18, 2015, Catherine got the call she had been waiting on. A suitable match had been found for Lauren's life-saving transplant.
"Our emotions were everywhere. We were so relieved that finally they had found a heart suitable for Lauren, but we were also extremely afraid of the journey that lay ahead for us as a family. From that call to the Royal, the next few hours all happened so quickly. We had to drop everything as the emergency air ambulance was on its way to take us to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for the heart transplant."
Lauren's transplant took place the following day on October 19. Everything went well during the eight-hour surgery but the next day, things started to go downhill for Lauren. Pressure on her lungs started to build and her new heart was put under strain.
"Day after day things weren't getting any better despite the great team at the Freeman Hospital - they always acted fast and always kept a close eye on Lauren's condition," recalls Catherine. "Every day we lived on hope and prayers that things would start to improve. It was hard on us but we had good family support. My sister would bring Leah and Declan over every two weeks while we were there."
Eventually, after several more procedures and operations, Lauren started to respond to treatment. But she wasn't out of the woods yet - her journey with her new heart was just beginning. She was fitted with a pacemaker and on December 23, she was stable enough to be transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital.
Lauren spent the rest of her recovery in Clark Clinic until she was finally allowed home at the beginning of February this year.
"She gets a wee bit breathless at times but she's doing well," says Catherine. "We just have to take it day by day, hoping her body doesn't reject the heart. She has gained some weight and her whole attitude is different. She has more energy and she's more confident - she's started to put on make-up and do her hair.
"She still needs check-ups at the Royal and over in Newcastle-upon-Tyne to make sure everything is going to plan but she's been able to go back to school and she loves sports, especially swimming.
"I am very proud of what Lauren has had to face in her 15 years of life and we are so thankful to the donor's family - not only did they lose a loved one but they gave Lauren a second chance in life."
Due to her illness, Lauren was unable to use the ticket her parents bought her to see One Direction's last concert in Belfast. But through the Children's Heartbeat Trust, she met the stars of last year's X Factor tour show. The charity also arranged Christmas celebrations for her ward at the Royal last year.
"This year we're all going to a nice hotel in Derry for Christmas to be together, because last year we were apart," adds Catherine. "We'll be forever grateful to the Children's Heartbeat Trust for its continued support throughout Lauren's journey.
"They have been a big part of our lives through the past year and still are today, with our regular check-ups in Belfast and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Trust has always been by our side, practically, emotionally and financially.
"We didn't have to worry about how we were going to pay bills or support our two children we had to leave at home. This meant we could focus all our effort and time on getting Lauren better.
"Every day there was a friendly phone call from them offering comfort and support, letting us know that they were always there to talk. We could call them at any time for a chat or if we needed any extra support."
The charity also introduced the Mulhollands to fellow families of heart patients for mutual support and enrolled Lauren in their Teens Programme, which has given her the opportunity to meet other young people living with Congenital Heart Disease (CHD).
"Through the teens programme, Lauren has been able to come out of her shell and do things without me or her daddy by her side," adds the Belfast mum. "This is a huge step for Lauren in gaining confidence in herself and we are so grateful for Children's Heartbeat Trust and this programme in allowing Lauren to start gaining independence.
"Looking back over the past 12 years and what Lauren and our family have come through, we couldn't have done it without the support from Children's Heartbeat Trust, both mentally and financially.
"We continue to receive support from the charity when travelling back to Newcastle-upon-Tyne for monthly transplant reviews and this makes life so much easier to know that they are beside us every step of the way."
Catherine adds: "They have helped us in so many ways and so many other families have benefited from the support services they offer, and so many other families in future years will need their support."
Recycling campaign raises £12,000 for trust
The Children's Heartbeat Trust charity receives much needed funding from the excellent work carried out by Bryson Recycling, the UK's leading social enterprise provider of recycling services.
The company launched its Recycling Rewards campaign earlier this year with other local businesses, including Encirc in Fermanagh, Cherry Plastics in Dungannon and Huhtamaki in Lurgan.
Each business pledged to donate £1 to Children's Heartbeat Trust for every tonne of paper, glass and plastic collected through Bryson's weekly kerbside recycling service, which includes more than 170,000 households.
Weekly household collections are carried out across five council areas; Antrim & Newtownabbey, Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon, Belfast, Lisburn and Castlereagh and Mid & East Antrim.
Cherry Pipes, Encirc and Huhtamaki all reprocess materials collected from Bryson Recycling on a weekly basis and work with household brands such as McDonalds, Bushmills and Baileys to provide quality products worldwide, including pipes, glass bottles and egg packaging.
The final amount raised was £12,360, from over 12,000 tonnes of material collected, exceeding the target of 10,000 tonnes.
Visit brysonrecycling.org for more details.