I had a real wake-up call this week. A friend of mine invited me to watch some of the events at the Westfield Health Transplant Games being held at the Mary Peter’s Track in Belfast on Sunday.
When we arrived, children from all over the UK were lining up in groups to compete in a race, just like at a regular school sports day.
Each had a number stitched onto their T shirt and, as the announcer called out their names over the loudspeaker, each wee child waved and bowed proudly as the watching crowds of spectators gave them a gigantic, raucous cheer.
Some just looked like typical school kids, mischievous, glowing with health and full of vitality, bursting to begin their few minutes of fame and their chance of winning a shiny medal. Others were stick-thin and frail-looking, with pale translucent complexions and far less energy or strength, but just as much determination to hit the track and to prove that they too could also go the distance.
There were so many competing in various fun events throughout the course of the day; all ages and races, all shapes and sizes from every corner of the UK, but the one thing they had in common was that every single person there that day had been saved from certain death by an organ transplant.
It was a really wonderful spectacle; to see there before us, in the flesh, the results of that most selfless and generous act of charity and to marvel at what human beings are capable of if they are willing and prepared to make the sacrifice.
This was as much a ceremony of thanks to the donors and their incredible families as it was a celebration of the brave survivors. Just looking around me at the hundreds of spectators clapping and cheering, it wasn’t even clear which were the parents of transplant survivors and which were the surviving relatives of donors, because tears of joy, loss and gratitude were flowing freely and openly wherever you looked.
It was incredible but it also served as a wake-up call for me as a parent too. For years I had literally been dreading this summer, when my wonderful older son Luke graduates from school and finally leaves home to embark on a new life at university in London.
I’d been so distressed at the prospect of losing him in this way that I could hardly bear to think about it and when I did my eyes would well up with tears and I’d have to turn away so he wouldn’t see.
For so long he’d been my rock. Through thick and thin, from boy to man he’d always been there, quietly but fondly supporting me through the pain of separation, divorce and all of life’s ups and downs. But now, being faced with these courageous parents and children — some of whom had lost their loved ones forever, others who weren’t even guaranteed of a future beyond a few weeks — I realised how fortunate I really am and how grateful I should be that I have two fantastic kids who’ve never had a health worry in their lives.
As soon as I got home that evening I sat down with the boys, told them of everything I’d seen that day and then we began for the first time ever to discuss our own private intentions, should the unthinkable ever happen.
I certainly learnt a lot that day and want to pass the following on to you too: you are more likely to need a transplant than to become a donor, yet the majority of people in Northern Ireland have still not signed up to the NHS Organ Donor Register.
Signing up is quick and simple and helps save lives. However, organs will only be used if families of the potential donor give their permission, so it is important to discuss your wishes with your loved ones without delay.
To sign up today, text SAVE to 84118,|telephone 0300 1232 323 or go online and log on to organdonation.nhs.uk