How two lives were saved by the kindness of strangers
Ahead of World Blood Donor Day this Thursday, Lisa Smyth hears why two families in Northern Ireland feel huge gratitude to those who regularly give blood.
'James was so ill... he wouldn't be alive now if he hadn't had those blood transfusions'
Teacher Laura Lennox (34) lives in Moneymore, Co Londonderry, with her husband, Gareth, also 34. The couple have two children, James, who turns four in August, and two-and-a-half-year-old Lucy. She says:
James was a healthy little boy and then in April last year he started vomiting and having diarrhoea. To begin with we put it down to a wee tummy bug, but it got to the point where he was passing a stool every 15 minutes and after three days there really was nothing left for him to pass.
It looked like he was almost passing the lining of his gut and then he started passing blood in his stools, so we took him to A&E.
They weren't overly concerned and sent us home but it kept getting worse. He was so lethargic and so sick, so we took him back to hospital and they did some blood tests and realised he was in total renal failure.
We come from a farming background and they said he must have picked up a strain of E Coli from the cattle. He was admitted to the paediatric ward at Craigavon and by this stage he wasn't passing any urine at all so the doctors were very concerned about him.
They told us they wanted to transfer him up to the Royal so the kidney specialists could see him. My husband went in the ambulance with him while I drove behind - it was such an awful drive.
It turned out the E Coli had attacked his red blood cells, breaking them down, which meant that when the blood was travelling through his kidneys all the broken cells were clogging up his kidneys and stopping them from working. It also meant his haemoglobin levels were very low.
By this stage he was really ill - he was still conscious but he was very weak, very swollen. He just lay there. James was really unlucky; out of all the people who get E Coli only 1% develop this complication.
The staff at the Royal were amazing. They told us they wanted to observe James for 24 hours to see if his urine output would return because sometimes the kidneys kick-start themselves.
However, that didn't happen and they were pumping fluids into him which were going nowhere and he was getting more swollen and puffy.
On the second day they started him on dialysis and he had to go to theatre to get all his lines and feeding tubes put in. He had three tubes coming out of his neck.
Handing him over to the theatre staff was absolutely terrifying as he was just a baby really. It might seem strange but I just had to do something for the two hours he was in theatre. I ended up going to a laundrette up the Falls Road to get his blanket and teddy bear washed as he'd been sick all over them.
Even while James was on dialysis, the blood cells were still being broken down and he needed blood transfusions because his haemoglobin levels were so low. He ended up getting three units over three days.
We were told he could be on dialysis from one or two days right up to six or seven weeks and in the end he stayed on dialysis for three weeks.
Probably the lowest point for me came during the first week because James was in so much pain they had to give him morphine to help manage it. He became unresponsive and the consultant was so worried she sent him for a CT scan of his brain to see if he was having a silent seizure.
We'd been told that one of the main causes of death from the condition was seizures and I just remember standing in the scanner with him and crying and crying. It turned out that it was just the morphine because his body wasn't filtering it properly because of the kidney failure.
After a few weeks we started to see a difference in him. Eventually he was allowed home but only during the day at the start as they had to monitor him so closely.
My husband and I took it in turns to stay with him in hospital but it was such a stressful time because Lucy was at home, so I felt like I didn't really see her for six weeks.
It was such an exhausting experience but we also feel so lucky to be where we are now because James wouldn't be alive if he hadn't had those blood transfusions.
He still isn't down to an annual appointment because there's still some protein in his urine which is a sign that the injury to his kidney is still there, but he's a totally different child this year compared to this time last year. He has so much more energy now, whereas last summer he would just sit around. He's due to start pre-school in September and he's so excited about it.
It's amazing to see the difference in him, though doctors have told us that it's likely he will go into renal failure again sometime in the future because of the damage that has already happened. They said the treatment that he has received will not last his lifespan, but they just don't know when that will happen. It could be in his 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s or even his 60s. We are just hoping that it happens later rather than sooner, but when it does happen he will need more blood transfusions.
Being in the position where a loved one needs blood really changes your perspective on the whole subject. I still find it surreal that my wee boy is running around with someone else's blood in his body and that he needed blood when he was so young.
In our case, it shows that blood isn't only used when something dramatic like an accident happens, that you can be completely healthy one day and the next you need a transfusion to save your life because of an illness.
It also shows that an adult, someone you have never met, can save the life of a baby who has just started out in their life. It's an incredible gift.
I used to give blood every so often but now that I realise how important it is, I give it religiously. It's only when someone you love is affected that you realise that it actually does save lives.
It takes about half an hour, three times a year. I know now that as a mother of a child who needed a blood transfusion that we will be eternally grateful to the people who gave blood and saved James' life."
'After getting the operation, I'm definitely optimistic and I see every day as a blessing'
Jim Kilpatrick (58) lives in Donaghadee, Co Down, with his wife of 30 years, Elma. The couple have one daughter, Jane (28). He says:
When you hear of someone with cirrhosis, there's an automatic association with alcohol abuse, but that certainly wasn't true in my case. Other than the odd drink here and there I was never a great drinker. In fact I was a regular driver so soft drinks were more my approach.
However, I was diagnosed with liver failure last May. It really was quite a shock and the doctors have never been able to identify the cause.
I'd been having weight problems for a while, but my mother had died in January and I put it down to the stress of that. My weight was going up and down but I wasn't overly concerned until after I took early retirement in March last year.
I had been working as a procurement officer for South Eastern Regional College and when I left that, my wife and I wanted to start doing more things together, to enjoy our retirement and travel a bit.
We booked a cruise but it was while we were away that my weight really became an issue, it was so bad that I couldn't even button up my suit at times. I was very uncomfortable, it felt painful and was difficult to move.
I'd been to the doctor before the cruise and they were carrying out investigations. When we got back home I went back to the GP and he told me he thought it was cirrhosis. I couldn't believe it, I looked at him as if to say 'catch yourself on!', but he said he thought that was what was causing the build-up of fluid.
He gave me a letter and told me to go straight to A&E and they arranged for me to come back a few days later so they could drain the fluid. They managed to drain 10 litres, essentially the same as five big bottles of Coke you get in the supermarket. I was diagnosed with cirrhosis and put on medication while they tried to find out why I had become ill in the first place.
However, as time went on, and I was told there was a clear course of action ahead, the cause of the cirrhosis became less important than what lay ahead.
Though the consultant wasn't able to tell me what percentage of my liver had been damaged, she indicated I was nowhere near needing a transplant.
She did warn me, however, that the position can change at any time and when that happens you can essentially fall off the cliff, and that is pretty much what happened to me.
The medication kept me going right through to the end of last year but then on January 2 of this year I became very unwell. I had noticed my weight going back up before Christmas and I'd been planning to contact the hospital but unfortunately things took a very sinister turn before I got the chance.
I was haemorrhaging very badly and losing a massive amount of blood, and we ended up ringing 999 during the night. I was rushed into hospital and I spent most of January in the Ulster. Towards the end of the month they transferred me to the Royal because the consultants at the Ulster realised I needed specialist treatment.
I was moved just in time to be seen by a specialist from King's College Hospital in London, where all the liver transplants are done for patients from Northern Ireland. He had been over here to do a clinic, had read my notes before he saw me and within minutes of walking into my room he told me he didn't think he would be messing about with a sticking plaster, but that he believed I needed a transplant. He also told me that if I didn't get one it would be fatal.
I had to have a whole raft of tests and make sure I was stable enough to have the operation, and that's where the blood transfusions came in.
They basically kept me alive until a liver was found. Within five weeks, at 4.20am on Easter Monday, we got the call for me to come across to London. It was my wife Elma who answered the phone, and your first response when the phone rings at that time of night is that a relative has been in an accident or that someone has died. But it turned out there was a liver for me.
By 5.20am we were leaving the house and at 6am I was pulling into the car park at Aldergrove. There's no other word than surreal to describe driving to the airport knowing you are going to be having a transplant in a matter of hours.
When we arrived in Luton there was a rapid response ambulance sitting waiting for us and we drove up the M1 at 95mph. The whole experience is something I will never forget.
I had the operation that night because the liver wasn't at King's and we had to wait for it to arrive.
By that time, our daughter Jane had arrived over and we all walked down to theatre and said our best wishes to each other. The surgeon asked if I had any last questions and I told her I only had three words - 'bring it on'. She laughed and said she knew it was going to go well.
The operation took six hours and I recovered quickly. Within a few hours I was sitting up chatting to the nurses in ICU and I was able to fly back to Northern Ireland in an air ambulance eight days after the operation.
It's now 10 weeks since my transplant and I feel terrific. Elma and I are looking forward to doing all the things we wanted to do last year but weren't able to. I don't think I realised at the time just how sick I was. I know the lows that I went through and the emotions I experienced, but even the doctors have since told me I'm lucky to be alive.
The blood transfusions I received played a big part in me being here today and kept me going until I had my transplant. Before I fell ill I didn't give blood because every time I saw my blood I passed out. I did go along to a couple of donation sessions but I passed out every time.
Of course, now I am very used to needles and the sight of my blood, but I can't give blood myself anymore. It's so important to donate because so many people need blood for so many different reasons and you never know when you might be in that situation.
I look at life differently since my transplant and getting the blood, which no doubt saved my life, I'm definitely more optimistic and I feel like every day is a blessing.
Even if the rain is lashing and the wind is blowing I don't complain, I just say at least I am here for another day to see it."
How to sign up as a blood donor
The Northern Ireland Blood Transfusion Service (NIBTS) relies on regular donors to ensure there are adequate blood supplies but also needs over 150 new donors to come forward every week. It is possible to start donating blood from the age of 17, yet only 6% of the eligible population in Northern Ireland donate.
Enrolling as a new blood donor is easy - just text BLOOD to 60081, call 08085 534 666, or visit www.nibts.org.
You can also drop into a local donation venue to donate.
The NIBTS website, Facebook and Twitter pages also have lots of information on blood and platelet donation, as well as details of all upcoming donation venues.