Heart transplant woman's moving tribute to her donor
A woman who received a transplant days before she believed she would die has spoken of how she will always be indebted to the donor who gave her a new heart – and the gift of life.
Speaking over three months after she underwent major surgery, Frances Downey vowed to "life live to the full" in honour of the person who donated their heart and the family who lost a loved one.
And although she does not know the identity of her donor, she has written an emotional note to thank their family for a decision that transformed her life.
A year ago 55-year-old Frances could barely tie her shoes or find the energy to stretch.
Now back home from England, where she had the life-saving surgery, she is rediscovering her independence and beginning to enjoy life one day at a time.
In March the Belfast woman believed she only had days left to live when she received a phone call at 1.15am to say a donor had been found.
Frances had suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy for 20 years.
It is a fatal condition that causes the heart to become so weakened and enlarged that it cannot pump enough blood to the rest of the body.
Doctors described her condition as a "time bomb waiting to go off" and after years of coping Frances' condition suddenly deteriorated in January.
But on March 21 she was flown to England and underwent the lifesaving operation at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
After months in intensive care Frances is now home and in recovery.
She still has to fly back to the Freeman Hospital every week to check if the heart will not be rejected – a process that could take up to two years.
But speaking to promote National Transplant Week, Frances said she felt lucky to be alive and is calling for more people sign the organ donor register.
There are currently eight desperately ill people in Northern Ireland waiting for a heart transplant.
"I was lucky, I want others to be as lucky," she said.
"Many people say they want to be donors but have not signed the register. It is so important they do," she added.
She still has to make some major adaptations to her daily routine, but it's worth it.
"It was great to get back to Northern Ireland and see my family and son Aiden at the airport, it was just wonderful," she said.
"I had to change my whole way of life; there are certain foods I have to stay away from. I also have to stay away from crowds in case I pick up an infection because of the immune suppression drugs I am on.
"I also can't go out to busy restaurants. But I'm back driving again; it is great to get back the feeling on independence."
She added: "I've been trying to go out on my own, just to walk to the shop.
"Before that I couldn't even manage 20 minutes. I was lucky if I could have put on my shoes, or bend and stretch. Now I can just go out and enjoy a coffee and walk about – to someone else that sounds like such a small thing, but it is a miracle I can do it."
Frances said she still got emotional when thinking about what her donor and their family had done for her.
"I haven't asked properly about them yet as I do find it overwhelming what they have done – they have given me the gift of life.
"I can only write a short note to thank them – I know I will write something longer when I have the strength. It is almost impossible to put it into words."
Tomorrow and Thursday Frances will host a stand at the Kennedy Centre in west Belfast giving people the opportunity to sign the organ donor register.
Dr Eddie Rooney, chief executive of the Public Health Agency and chair of the Northern Ireland Committee for Organ Donation, said just 32% of the population had signed the register and only 38% of people had discussed being a donor with loved ones.
"We need to change these figures – there are still around 160 people waiting for a transplant and around 15 people die in Northern Ireland each year whilst waiting on one," he said.
For more information, please take the time to visit www.organdonationni.info
Frances wrote an emotional note for her heart donor's family
"I would like to thank my donor and family for being so courageous and brave, at the time of their loss, to give me the most generous gift anyone could give another person, the gift of life, because without the most precious gift my heart transplant on 21/03/14, I would not be here today. I will always be grateful to them for giving me this chance, to live for my self and my son Aiden, and I intend to live life to the full. Words cannot describe how I feel, you will always be in my thoughts and will never forget your kindness towards me."