Just seconds after becoming a dad for the fourth time, Steve Carter’s joy turned to unimaginable horror as his wife suffered a catastrophic brain haemorrhage.
In the hours after doctors established 39-year-old Denise would never recover, Steve was faced with a question he never thought he would have to answer — whether he should donate her organs.
In the almost 13 years that have passed since then, he has never regretted his decision to give permission for Denise’s organs to be used for transplant, saving the lives of five people in the process.
And in a remarkable moment of chance, Steve has also been present on the other side of the process when a friend received the call that his kidney transplant was going ahead.
“We were at a fundraising event and I was standing right next to him when he got the call,” said 48-year-old Steve.
“He’d been on the waiting list for 17 years at the time and when he got off the phone, he turned to me and told me they had found a kidney.
“I just told him to go, but he got upset as well because he was happy but he knew there was also a family out there going through what I had gone through.
“But after 17 years on the waiting list, he isn’t on dialysis anymore and he’s able to do all these things he couldn’t do before.
“He’s doing brilliantly and seeing the transplant process from both sides, to see how it changes lives, has been amazing.”
Originally from England, Steve met Denise while travelling in Australia.
The couple eventually chose to settle down in Northern Ireland, close to Denise’s family, and after a wedding in Cuba they welcomed their first son, Cameron (19), followed by Ethan (17) and Aaron (14).
“We had three boys, all healthy and everything was perfect, Denise had a good job and I had a job in banking and was working my way up,” said Steve, also dad to 12-year-old Leah.
“We were doing the house up, our family was growing, a healthy baby was the most important thing, but we thought it would be fantastic if we had a little girl as well.
“That was the ambition and the dream and then we found out Denise was expecting again.
“Everything went fine with the labour, Denise gave a last push and a little baby came out and she turned to me and said she had a really bad headache before she collapsed onto the bed.
“We hadn’t even found out whether the baby was a boy or a girl and all I remember was the midwife pressing the alarm and everyone running in. In a split second, everything changed.
“I was pretty much back and forwards to each side of the hospital between Leah and Denise, it was a horrendous night.
“It was supposed to be such a happy and joyous time and it turned into a tragedy.
“I was up all night and I remember very clearly the doctor coming and saying they had done brain stem tests and unfortunately there was no activity.
“I went home to see the boys and they were so excited when I came through the door, asking about the baby, and I had no idea how I was going to tell them.
“I was trying to be strong for them, I had to sit them down and tell them they had a sister but mummy wasn’t coming home. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
“They told me the brain haemorrhage could have happened at anytime and I’m relieved it happened in the hospital because we know everything that could have been done for Denise was done.
“At the time, you don’t really take it in, it’s something you never expect to happen and I was in denial for the first couple of hours.
“I was approached by the organ donation specialist nurse and she asked whether Denise was on the donor register.
“I had no idea, we had a young family, it wasn’t something we’d ever discussed.”
By speaking to Denise’s family, Steve discovered she had signed the register when applying for her driving license.
“It was a really big decision and I wanted to get it right, but I’m so glad that it went ahead,” he continued.
“Denise was so kind and wanted to help everyone, so it’s something she would have wanted.
“Afterwards, we got a letter to say five different people received organs, one was a young, single mum, and we got another letter about a year later saying all five were still alive.
“The kids tell people their mummy died, but in the next breath they tell them she saved the lives of five people.
“They were so young at the time and they don’t have many memories of their mum but being involved in the organ donation campaign has allowed us to make new memories and talk about Denise.
“We’re so proud of her and it has helped us with the grieving process.”
Steve continued: “Looking back, if I’d had the conversation with Denise about organ donation beforehand, it would have made the decision so much easier.
“You’re already trying to get your head around everything and then you have to make this really big decision. No pressure was ever put on me to make my decision, but everything comes at once.”
According to Mary Hayes, a specialist nurse in organ donation, families are more likely to grapple with the idea if they don’t know their loved one’s position.
“It is definitely easier when the family knows that their relative wanted to donate their organs,” she said.
“We’ve even had some families raise donation before we speak to them simply because they knew that’s what their relative wanted.”
Mary’s role involves approaching families of patients at Altnagelvin Hospital before guiding them through the process.
“Our job is to support the family and be with the patient throughout and it’s a real privilege,” she said.
“We talk to the families, we find out about their relative, and just before the retrieval process starts and everyone is present in the theatre, the specialist nurse says a few words about the patient, who they were, what they liked.
“We acknowledge the great gift they are giving and then we have a minute’s silence.
“I think that’s lovely and it keeps the person at the heart of what we’re doing.”
Steve added: “Denise was such an amazingly kind and generous person, she was full of life herself. Knowing that we donated her organs has helped to keep her legacy alive.”
Sign up to the NHS Organ Donor Register by logging onto www.organdonationni.info