Every day, three people die while waiting for a transplant. For anyone who has wavered about signing up to the NHS Organ Donor Register, the stories here may make you think again.
These groups of friends are testimony to the extraordinary healing power of organ donation.
They are friendships born of tragedy, the seeds sown when a grieving family bravely thought of someone else as their loved one lay dying.
There is also the friendship formed out of incredible self-sacrifice, when a living donor gives up an organ to a stranger.
Dawn and Dylan Bridgwood (left), June Payne (centre) and Sue Bennett and Sharron Jones (right) have all had their lives affected by organ donation
It is rare for organ recipients to meet the donor or their family. They can contact each other but it has to be done anonymously through NHS Blood and Transplant, via the transplant co-ordinators at individual hospitals. They can then meet if they exchange contact details.
Here, though, we reveal a few of the remarkable and truly moving stories of those who did meet.
Dawn Bridgwood, 53, a foster carer, and her husband Graham, 60, also a foster carer, live in New- castle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, with their son Dylan, 17, who had a liver transplant in 2006 after June Payne, 65, a tutor from Newcastle upon Tyne, donated her son Jonathan’s organs.
Dawn says: June’s son has saved mine — and that brings a closeness no other friendship can have. Dylan is now the same age as Jonathan was when he died, and that is very poignant.
We first met up at Newcastle United football ground, as Dylan is an avid football fan and so was Jonathan. That day, June gave me a print of a statue in Newcastle that has the inscription: ‘The past is my present to your future’. It was very emotional.
Jonathan Payne (pictured) died at the age of 17 and his mother June donated his liver
I first wrote to June 12 years ago: getting that first letter back was so lovely. I’d always felt bad her son had to lose his life for mine to get on with his, so her letter made me feel a bit better, although very emotional, too. I was glad she knew Dylan was well, that her decision had been worth it. As a mum, I would want to know that.
I wrote back with a picture of Dylan and told June how poorly he’d been and that I couldn’t thank her enough.
Before the transplant we were living on a knife-edge, in and out of hospital. Dylan was born with biliary atresia, a life-threatening liver condition which meant he needed a transplant at nine months old. It failed and he needed a second one at five. The 11-week wait was awful as we’d seen other children lose their fight. But since the transplant, Dylan has made a remarkable recovery; he’s so strong — and it’s all thanks to June and her brave decision.
After that letter there was no more contact for a while. It can be risky getting in touch: what happens if the recipient rejects the organ, will the donor family feel they’re losing their loved one again? I didn’t want to put us or June through that.
But after a few years I decided to look for her on Facebook, to let her know Dylan was still well: I couldn’t bear to think of her wondering and not knowing.
I messaged her in 2013 and asked if the dates of the transplant meant anything. She replied at 11pm one night and we messaged until 4am.
We started chatting every week, then met a month later. June brought her grandchildren and Jonathan’s nan, sister and auntie. Now, we message each other most weeks and meet when we can, going for meals and to the football, just like a big family.
Dawn Bridgwood (left) with her son Dylan (centre) had his life saved by the liver of Jonathan Payne, his mother June is pictured right
June says: Jonathan was the youngest of our four children and his loss has been devastating. He died after being hit by a bus. He’d seen a TV show about transplants a few weeks before and said what a good idea they were, so we didn’t think he’d hesitate. He helped six people and I received a letter from five, but it’s only Dawn I’ve kept in touch with.
It’s upsetting when you first get those letters but it does ease some of the anguish to know my son’s still making a mark on the world. I hope I’ll see Dylan doing all the things I wanted for Jonathan — his first job, getting married — knowing it’s because of my son that he can.
Dylan says: Mum had told me some donor families like to touch the part of the body where the organ was transplanted so when I met June when I was 15, I asked if she’d like to do this, which she did. Everyone was in tears and she gave me a hug. I’m so grateful for what she did for me.
‘I was worried she’d be disappointed in me… but we both just burst into tears’
Sue Bennett, 44, lives in Stafford with husband Anthony, 46, an accounts manager. They have three children: Millie, 15, Billy, 12, and Jack, 11. Sue received a liver transplant in June 2011, thanks to Sharron Jones’s only daughter Amy, 24. Sharron, 49, works for an optical distribution company and lives in Wrexham with her partner Wayne Hughes, 50, a pipe layer.
Sue says: In the two weeks before my transplant I had accepted that I was dying. I’d written goodbye letters to my children and even bought my daughter Millie, who was then 13, a present to open on her wedding day because I didn’t think I would be here.
I had cirrhosis of the liver diagnosed when I was 37 — there was no reason for it; doctors just told me I was incredibly unlucky. In the month before the transplant I went downhill quickly — even walking a few steps took real effort.
Sue Bennett, 44 (right), received a liver transplant from the only daughter of Sharron Jones (left)
Doctors told me that without a transplant I would die. When I got the call seven years ago to say a donor had been found, I was already in hospital in London for specialist blood cleansing treatment.
It was an incredible moment. But it was awful too, because the nurses told me the donor was a young girl with brain damage and we had to wait for her to pass away. There are no words to describe how traumatic that was, knowing that in another hospital somewhere, another mother was losing her daughter.
I don’t remember the first two days after the operation. But on the third day I remember realising that the dreadful itch all over my body, caused by my liver failing, had gone. It was unbelievable. I felt alive again.
Three months later, I wrote to Sharron, anonymously at first, through the hospital. I had an overwhelming feeling of guilt. I really wanted to thank her, but also to tell her how sorry I was. She wrote back with pages and pages telling me what Amy was like, with photographs.
We wrote each other another letter after that, and we knew each other’s real names from the start.
Amy Jones, 24 (pictured), died after a seizure, she suffered from epilepsy
I told her how Amy had transformed my life, and how my children still had their mum. I wanted Sharron to know the ripple effect of what she’d done.
We first met in the summer of 2016. I’d just done the British Transplant Games — an athletics event for people who have had a transplant. I’d won a gold medal in the 1,500 metres and I wanted to give it to Sharron, for Amy.
We met at a golf resort where Amy had worked. We were both instantly in floods of tears, it was so overwhelming to meet Sharron in person. I knew I hadn’t caused her daughter to die but I still felt responsible. I had been worried about how the meeting would go, that I would disappoint her, that she would hate the fact that I was here and her daughter wasn’t. The first thing I said to her was: ‘Can you forgive me?’
She said there was nothing to forgive — and that Amy was doing her proud by helping me. We spoke for three hours, then went to Amy’s grave.
Sharron and I have remained firm friends ever since. We message each other once a week and meet up every few months.
When Sharron posts messages on Facebook, sharing a memory about Amy, I know she is struggling and I message her and tell her I’m keeping Amy safe for her.
Sharron says: Knowing that part of Amy is being looked after by Sue does give me great comfort. Amy had epilepsy and died after she had a seizure at home aged 24. She was taken to hospital but it was too late.
We had all discussed organ donation as a family anyway — my sister-in-law, Julie, had died two years earlier aged 44, while waiting for a lung transplant. When the hospital asked me, I had no hesitation.
I was so nervous about meeting Sue for the first time, but when I saw her walking towards me, this wave of peace washed over me.
Sue and I will be friends for the rest of our lives — I’ve met her three children, which was lovely. Millie thinks of Amy as a sister, as she is part of Sue. I’m so grateful to have Sue in my life, and she is doing Amy proud.
He’s 88 – and the kidney he gave is still going strong
Nicholas Crace, 88, a retired charity boss from Southampton, made history in 2012 when he became the oldest living donor in the UK, giving a kidney to a complete stranger, 72-year-old Veronica Reynolds, a former office manager from Sheffield. She is married with two children, Matthew, 49, and Mark, 47.
Nicholas says: I decided out of the blue one day that I wanted to donate a kidney to someone who needed it. I was getting older and wanted to do something useful with my life while I still could.
My wife had died six months previously and we had no children. I was sitting in the garden with a cup of tea, thinking how lucky I was that I had such good health, when the idea popped into my head. I had never carried a donor card, though I do now.
To become an altruistic donor, I first had to complete various tests, which took about nine months — there was no problem with me being older.
Nicholas Crace, 88 (left), made history in 2012 when he became the oldest living donor in the UK, giving a kidney to a complete stranger, 72-year-old Veronica Reynolds (right)
After passing blood tests, fitness tests on a treadmill and kidney filtration tests, as well as a 40-minute counselling session with a psychiatrist, finally I was told that a match had been found.
I wasn’t nervous, even though I knew it was major surgery and there was a one-in-3,000 chance of dying. I had no idea who was getting my kidney, except that it was someone in the North.
Veronica wrote a letter to me a few months later. It was lovely to hear from her and to know she was doing so well.
I sent her a Christmas card back, then one day she phoned me. It was a complete surprise — but a lovely one. S
he and her husband came down to see me the following week and stayed all day. We talked for ages and we still meet up a couple of times a year, and send emails regularly.
It’s lovely to have a friendship with her. I don’t feel that I’ve done anything marvellous but it is satisfying seeing Veronica so full of life. It feels like a job well done.
Veronica says: Nicholas’s kidney has completely changed my life. I reached the point where I felt I would never get a transplant — and I knew there was a risk I would become too ill to have one.
I needed a new kidney because I have an inherited condition that causes cysts to grow on them, which stopped them doing their job properly.
My mother died of the condition in 1982 and I miscarried a baby because of it a year later — that’s when it was diagnosed, when I was 38.
Doctors told me then that one day I would need a transplant. I was on dialysis for eight years — where a machine does the kidneys’ job of cleaning the body’s blood — before I went on the transplant list, and I would scream when the needles went in.
Dialysis is exhausting and I had to go four times a week for several hours at a time, though I tried to get on with things.
You do start to despair, though — none of my family was a match for me and, sadly, my two sons have the same kidney problems anyway. When the hospital called to say they had a match, I was in complete disbelief.
After the operation, I wrote a thank-you letter and the hospital passed it on. I sent Nicholas two letters a year via the hospital — and he wrote back, but I never knew exactly who he was. I’d guessed from his letters that he was older, though, as he wrote with a fountain pen.
Eventually, one Christmas card he sent me had the name of a hospice on the back, one of which he happened to be a patron of, and I guessed he had some link to it.
I managed to trace him through that, then one morning I phoned him. He was amazed to hear from me — but I didn’t want to shock him too much because he was 83 at the time!
His kidney is still going strong — it’s been six years now since the transplant.
We get on famously and when I visit, he treats me like I live upstairs in Downton Abbey and won’t let me do a thing; he treats me like a queen! He’s such a gentleman.