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'It’s amazing to think that five people have got the opportunity to have a longer or normal life because of Denise'

Approximately 200 people are waiting for an organ transplant in Northern Ireland and around 15 people die each year while on the waiting list. Steve Carter, from Glengormley, tells Claire Williamson about his decision to have wife Denise’s organs donated when she passed away in 2009 and how raising awareness has helped his family’s grieving process

Tough decision: Steve Carter with his family
Tough decision: Steve Carter with his family
Claire Williamson

By Claire Williamson

It's a decision he never thought he would have to make. For father-of-four Steve Carter, sometimes the past 10 years feels like a flash - other days, it feels like a lifetime.

Ten years ago his world was turned upside down when he lost the love of his life.

His wife, Denise Carter, who worked as an administrator for the NI Probation Office, was 39 when she suffered a massive brain haemorrhage in March 2009 shortly after giving birth to daughter Leah.

Steve, from Glengormley, was faced with the heartbreaking decision of whether to have her organs donated.

It was a conversation the couple had never had - but through organ donation Denise saved five lives.

And in the decade since Denise's sudden and untimely death, Steve and their four children have found great comfort through raising awareness for organ donation which has aided their grieving process.

Steve says: "Sometimes it feels it's gone by in a flash, it feels like I don't know where those 10 years have gone. Other times it feels like a lifetime away.

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Losing Denise brought about huge upheaval to all their lives, especially for Steve, who gave up his career as a bank manager to become a full-time dad.

"When Denise died, I had to give up my career to look after the children. That's been my main priority for the last ten years," he adds.

"Now I have a couple of part time jobs at my children's primary school. I'm the lollipop man in the mornings and afternoons, and I'm a classroom assistant at lunchtimes.

"It's perfect for me because I get to spend more time with my kids, which is even better.

The numerous events Steve, now 46, and sons Cameron (17), Ethan (15), Aaron (12) and daughter Leah (10), have taken part in have become a way for the family to make new memories while keeping their mum at the heart of it all.

"When you go organ donation events and you are talking about the process, it brings it back to you.

Strong bond: Steve with wife Denise on their wedding day
Strong bond: Steve with wife Denise on their wedding day

"We were at an event recently and it was amazing to see people going through something I was going through 10 years ago, having lost someone and having their organs donated and going through different emotions.

"It's definitely an up and down process, but you see that light through the tunnel."

The family talk about Denise all the time - something that Steve felt very strongly about in order to keep the conversation and communication channels open. For him it was very important that his children knew they could always come to him and talk about their mum at any time.

"Organ donation has been a massive help getting us through that grieving process," he adds.

"It was a big thing at the very start, talking about Denise a lot more, doing events and getting that positive vibe out.

"Obviously, something so tragic happened but there is a positive out of it and the children talk about that aspect too."

As the children have grown up, they have become more relaxed in talking about their mum and Steve is always proud when he hears their response when anyone asks them about her.

"I know some older generations wouldn't have talked about people who have passed away because they might feel that it's upsetting," he says.

"We are the opposite, we talk about Denise a lot, even if we meet someone new. And when the children have gone into different schools they have been very open about their mum.

Steve at home
Steve at home

"Some people might feel awkward about asking about their mum, but the children will straight away go 'mum is in heaven, she passed away but she saved five people's lives through organ donation'.

"And it's so nice to hear that and have them be so confident in talking about their mum and not hide it."

Steve said while he knows every parent is proud of their children, he believes he takes the "honour of being the actual proudest dad in the whole world".

"The children are my life now and I say that in a positive way," he says.

"They are my reason to get up every single morning in such a happy way."

He adds: "Spending time with them is a pleasure."

But, of course, there are difficult times, especially when there are milestones and special occasions in which their mum is not there, for example when Cameron turned 17 recently, which Steve described as an emotional day which had its ups and downs.

"But he is so supportive and they are all just brilliant," he continues.

"I'm the proudest dad, of not just Cameron, but all four of them, they have just been amazing."

Steve also finds it so heart-warming when he sees traits of Denise in his children.

"The boys are just so well-mannered and so pleasant when they talk," he adds.

"For the last few weeks I've had remarks back from school about how Aaron is so well-mannered, how he reacts and how sensitive he is, which is just as his mum would have been."

"And then I see things in Leah all the time, for example, if I say something silly, she will give me a look that's exactly the same as the one Denise would have given me if I said a silly joke."

"Even some of the things that Leah says, I think, 'my goodness it's just Denise', and it's so lovely to see that.

"It's amazing because obviously Leah never met her mum, but she has inherited her mannerisms and her sense of humour as well which is funny and it's just so loving as well, which is great."

Steve says it still makes them so proud knowing about the five lives that were saved by Denise, who he describes as his 'soul mate'. The couple met by chance in Australia when Steve was 24 and Denise was 28.

He says: "I was on a 10-year trip travelling around the world and Denise had been travelling too. We bumped into each other in Sydney and I knew straight away that she was the one.

"We started working for the same sales company. We had so much in common and decided to move in together after only a couple of weeks.

"Our jobs let us travel and we did that for a while, enjoying each other's company. For about three years, we carried on travelling. We went along the coast of Australia and then we went back through Hong Kong, through Paris and London and eventually Northern Ireland, where Denise was originally from.

"Denise was on a career break at the time and wanted to go home, so we started from scratch and settled down here.

"She was my soulmate.

"It's amazing to think five people have got the opportunity to have a longer life or to live a normal life because of her," he adds.

"And when you go to these events, and you see people going through transplants and how their lives has changed so much.

"We never found out a lot of detail about the five people but we met people at a recent event who had transplants five, 10 or 15 years ago and it was like, 'oh my gosh this is amazing', that their lives have changed so much.

"Denise helped five complete strangers somewhere and hopefully they are still living a life now and spent a longer period of time with their families."

Steve says with his experience, the biggest thing he can say to people is to have a conversation about organ donation.

He explains: "It was a big decision when Denise passed away and in our situation because it was such a sudden tragedy.

"I think over the last 10 years, organ donation has helped us sort of process what happened but also to find a positive out of something so tragic."

This Saturday marks what would have been Denise's 50th birthday and Steve's family are having a party to celebrate her life and keep her memory alive.

"I think that's been the biggest thing I've found over the past 10 years, is marking those moments and being able to speak openly about Denise.

"That's the great thing that I've done with the children, they are comfortable and confident taking about Denise and they aren't frightened to say to me, 'did mummy used to do that?' or 'where did you go with mummy' and not thinking, 'oh gosh I'm going to upset daddy'.

"Sometimes they ask me 'is there another event coming up?', which is nice and we can go out and talk to other people.

"It's nice to have that time as well talking about their mum - it's reassuring for them.

"I think that people just need to have that conversation so it's not an awkward moment - it should just be a normal conversation. Have the conversation and find out what your loved ones' needs or wishes would be," Steve adds.

Sign organ register and help saves lives

The current legislation for Northern Ireland is to opt in to organ and tissue donation, and you can do this by joining the NHS Organ Donor Register. You can also record a decision to not be a donor.

Whatever your choice, you must ensure that you talk to your family or those closest to you about your wishes, as this will prepare them in case anything should happen.

You can also nominate up to two representatives to make the decision for you. These could be family members, friends or other people who you trust, such as your faith leader.

Organ donation gives the gift of life to others. If you join the NHS Organ Donor Register, and have talked to your loved ones about your decision, you could help save the lives of up to seven people, though the donation of your heart, lungs, kidney, liver, pancreas, small bowel or body tissue.

There are a number of ways to sign up if you so wish including: registering online at www.organdonationni.info/register, downloading a form to register by post, or by calling 0300 123 23 23.

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