'I'll be forever grateful three families made a decision that gave me a future'
Gareth Hunter was just 24 when he was told that he would need a liver transplant to survive.
Now, 17 years later, Gareth (41) has spoken of being given the remarkable gift of life when he received three organ donations within a few weeks earlier this year.
After a long struggle with liver disease, Gareth received two unsuccessful transplants before a third successful transplant within just five weeks this summer.
Gareth said: "The fact that the three donor families were able to make that decision is immense to me and my family.
"Hopefully it gives them a bit of comfort to know that there are people who are getting extra years and a future from what is ultimately a very devastating effect on their own family.
"I know that as a recipient, it makes an immense difference. I'm going to be forever grateful for my donors."
Gareth's wife Eileen (40) said: "Without people's generosity I wouldn't have my husband beside me today.
"If they could see Gareth they could see the gift they gave him. It hasn't been wasted."
The Dundrum, Co Down, man was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis in 1997 and then autoimmune hepatitis. In the intervening years, Gareth lived a "fairly normal" life, working as a civil servant, marrying Eileen and even running three marathons.
It was not until 2012 that his illness "ramped up", despite being diagnosed with another autoimmune disease, primary sclerosing cholangitis, in 2010.
He was hospitalised with encephalopathy - whereby decreased liver function causes toxins to gather in the brain and cause confusion. Gareth said: "I couldn't have told you my name. I couldn't do anything.
"The encephalopathy came on in the morning and I drove to Lisburn not realising there was a problem. I ended up in the wrong place; I couldn't work out where I was or what was going on.
"I stopped the car, had a cry, took a few deep breaths, managed to work out where I was and get myself to work. It wasn't safe, but I was so far gone I didn't recognise the problem.
"That evening I tried to get dressed and was putting my T-shirt on over my feet because I didn't know how to put clothes on."
After his deterioration, Gareth was put on King's College Hospital's organ transplant list on August 31, 2012 and told he would have to wait 18-24 months.
"We had a bag packed and were just waiting on the phone call," he said.
Gareth and Eileen clearly remember the day, June 11, 2014, he received the call that the donor organ was ready for transplant.
It took them just four hours from leaving Belfast to the reach the hospital ward.
"As soon as they get word that the liver is available and it is a match, they just tell you to get to the hospital as soon as possible," Gareth said.
They rushed to Belfast International Airport where an air ambulance was on standby to fly them to a private airstrip outside London, where a blue-light ambulance was waiting to whisk him to the hospital.
His recovery was quick and surgery was thought a success.
But Gareth was back on the transplant list 12 days later after a blood clot necessitated re-transplant.
The Hunters were on the verge of returning to Belfast when the bad news hit again after the second transplant. "All the follow-up scans were good. They gave me one final scan and to everybody's surprise, the same thing had happened," said Gareth.
"So it was the same process again - an ultrasound, a CT scan and 'Sorry sir, we're going to have to do it again.'"
Four-and-a-half months later Gareth said he believes "everything is going as well as could be". "Hopefully people discuss organ donation within their households. In the event that something unfortunate happens, the family will be better aware of that individual's wishes."