A TRAINEE nurse is urging people to sign up for the organ donation register after the death of his sister saved the lives of six other people.
Tom Whitmarsh knows first hand that nothing can ease the pain of losing a loved one, but says that the thought of some good coming from a tragedy is enough to keep a family going through the bleakest times.
When Anna, 18, died following an aneurysm on December 3 2012, Tom and his parents Martin and Hilary had to make the decision regarding whether to donate Anna’s organs.
Tom said: “Anna did not have any previous illness but she was working at her job as a waitress in Brighton on the day she fell ill and had woken up with a headache which got progressively worse.
“Eventually she told one of her friends who called an ambulance and also my mother who was working nearby. Anna lost consciousness in the paramedic car on the way to the hospital.
“We were at the Hurstwood Park Neurosciences Centre in Haywards Heath for five days while a variety of tests and procedures were carried out but unfortunately she had a brain haemorrhage.
“The doctors, consultants and nurses tried lots of different things for Anna but in the end it was not going to be a good result and she died.”
A specialist organ donor nurse spoke to the family, who decided that they wanted Anna’s organs to be donated.
Tom said: “Anna had not expressed a view regarding organ donation so we had to discuss it at the hospital for the first time.
“We all felt that she would definitely want to do some good if she could although it was a hugely difficult decision as we had just been told that she would not make it and then we were having to make such a responsible decision.
“In the short term it was really hard because you do not get that switching off the machine moment so there is not really any closure there, but in the long term it is better.
“We told the nurse what we had decided and Anna then went into the ICU unit where the nurses took charge of her and we all went in to see her and say goodbye in little groups which was very hard because she looked like she was just sleeping.
“After that they took her off to theatre and did what they had to do.”
Anna, of Hillside Avenue, Worthing, was a student at BHASVIC College and was waiting for her A level results at the time of her death.
Her heart, lungs, pancreas, liver and kidneys were donated to six different people, including an 18-month-old a baby, a man in his Forties and an 18-year-old.
Tom, who now lives in Guildford, said: “The organ donation service is really good and they stay in touch with you through the whole process.
“It was and has been something for us all to hold on to as it offers some comfort.
“We heard such a lot of bad news during that space of time that it was nice to think of some people getting some good news.
“It is also amazing to think that the organs can go to more than one person such as the liver which can be split.
“It is incredible what they can do and there are developments all the time.
“There are so many things in society that we cannot do anything about and people die preventable deaths everyday while on the organ donor list.
“If more people could express their wishes to their loved ones it may be possible to save a few more lives. The change in consent is also a good thing in my opinion.”
Tom decided to retrain as a nurse following the death of his sister.
“I did a law degree first time round and was working at a law firm in Bristol when Anna died,” he said.
“I decided then to retrain as a nurse as I had such a desire to give something back.
“The people at Hurstwood that helped Anna did such a fantastic job.
“You hear so many negative things about the NHS but they were outstanding in every respect and looked after Anna’s dignity when she was in a very vulnerable state.
“Everyone in the family feels that they did a really good job and I was so impressed that I wanted to contribute in some way.
“I was lucky enough to be offered a place at the University of Surrey which is a really good nursing course.
“It has been a really good experience so far and the teaching and facilities are really good.
“The course is a three year course and then you specialise, and I would like to go into neurology because that is where Anna was being looked after.”
Tom, who says he shared the same sense of humour and politics as Anna, described Christmas as a very difficult time.
He added: “We were very close and it has not got any easier yet. I think that is a lifetime sort of thing.
“I was back at my Mum’s in Worthing for Christmas. My grandfather died shortly after Anna did so it has been difficult.
“On the anniversary of her death at the start of December we went to the cemetery with a group of her friends and then went for a meal afterwards.
“Donating Anna’s organs has helped my mum in particular as she is able to reflect on the fact that there is something positive to come from this.
“We get progress reports from the organ donation service and they come from the same nurse that looked after Anna which is brilliant and it keeps us going because it is a really lovely reminder.
“It gives us a boost and definitely makes things easier.
“We will have the opportunity to have letters from the people that received organs from Anna and then further down the line you can meet if that is what everyone wants to do.
“St John Ambulance also hold an annual event for families of organ donors which recognises the contribution that families have made. It is all about some good coming from a tragedy.
“In the short term when you have just lost somebody it is a tough thing to do but in the long term it becomes one of the only things that you can look back on in a positive way.
“People can be protective of their loved ones and when they have died they may feel that they do not want anybody else to touch their child’s remains.
“Everyone reacts in very different ways to death in terms of emotions and it is a very individual thing, but I would say that unless organ donation is something that you feel incredibly strongly that you definitely never want to do, then you should do it as it is one of the few sources of comfort you can take out of bereavement.”
For more information about organ donation or to sign up to the register, go to www.organdonation.nhs.uk