Raising awareness for organ donation

After being on an organ transplant waiting list for five years, 46-year-old Michelle Hemmings was matched with a compatible donor, and underwent a successful single lung transplant in February 2018. Her operation was one of five to be carried out at Cambridgeshire’s Royal Papworth Hospital, within a 36-hour period, in what has become a record, in terms of the hospital’s performance of so many transplants within such a short space of time. Michelle now spends a fair bit of her time raising funds for the hospital, as well as raising awareness about organ donation.

Almost a year on, following the six-hour procedure, Michelle looks a picture of health, and has the energy to do simple everyday tasks that were impossible for her before her transplant. 

“I was unable to go up the stairs without having to stop and sit on every second step,”

Michelle said.

“But now I am able to go all the way up – unaided – and without having to stop. I used to be breathless all the time; I was always coughing, and I had to have a portable oxygen tank for the last five years. When I got back from the hospital and went up the stairs by myself without stopping, my parents and my daughter were in disbelief.” 

Michelle and the four other patients, who received two hearts, two double lungs and a single lung transplant between them, have come to be known as the ‘famous five’ of organ transplants. More than 40 medical staff were involved in the non-stop operations that took place over 36 hours – from a Sunday afternoon through to the Tuesday morning. 

Michelle said: 

“I am so blessed to have had the transplant. It has given me a new lease of life, and I am now able to do so many things I was unable to do for so long. From the bottom of my heart, I thank the donor very much for giving me the chance, and I am so very grateful to my consultants, surgeons, nurses and all the staff at Papworth Hospital. The Transplant team have turned my life around!” 

Michelle, who had been suffering for the past 21 years with Interstitial Lung Disease (Pulmonary Fibrosis) and mild Pulmonary Hypertension, used to run her own party planning business, but had to put it on hold due to her declining health. She is now using some of her time and her party planning skills to organise her own charity events to help to raise funds for the Papworth Hospital. 

“My aim is also to raise awareness about organ donation, especially among Black and Asian communities,”

Michelle said. 

Citing the evidence that Black and Asian patients in need of transplants have to wait much longer than Caucasian patients, Michelle said it is important to encourage more people from those communities to sign up on the organ donation register. “If more of us sign up,” she said, “we will be helping our own people in the long run. Organ donation is perhaps something that we don’t talk about much within the Black community, but I do feel that it is important for us to begin to talk about it more among ourselves. It’s important that people are comfortable with the decision before signing up.” 

Organ donation and transplants is a big subject for donors and recipients alike. Due to her declining health, Michelle was moved onto the priority list in January 2017. A few months later, in April, when the Papworth Hospital first called her to say they had found a possible donor, Michelle said she was nervous. She made the journey down to Cambridgeshire by ambulance, and was gowned up, waiting for the operation, while the hospital carried out final tests. Although she was hopeful, she said she was also scared and, deep down inside, she was hoping that the operation would not take place—and it didn’t. The lung did not pass the final stages of tests. Despite her fear, Michelle said her heart dropped when they informed her they couldn’t go ahead with the operation. 

Michelle used the next several months to prepare herself mentally for the operation. She went through another call that also ended in the procedure not being carried out, and then came the real thing in February 2018. 

“My heart was beating fast for happiness,” Michelle said, “but I was still slightly scared as well. But I knew it was for the best. At that time, I felt as if I didn’t have a lot of energy left. I was just getting by.” 

Michelle is hoping to make her charity event an annual one. The first one is planned for September 2019, in Birmingham. “It will be a sit-down dinner or a buffet, with entertainment,” she said. “I am also planning to have items for auction, and businesses can have a table at the event in return for a fee and a percentage of any proceeds from sales. All the relevant information will soon be available on my new website.” 

For further information, or to book Michelle for a speaking engagement, call 079670 48125. 

Written By: Joy Roxborough

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