Photo by Rob Chambers
To mark Organ Donation Week, we have a special guest blog post from Lisa Wilson. After losing her 22-year-old son in an accident, Lisa has become a passionate advocate for organ donation.
In memory of her son, Tom, and the 50 lives he saved or changed through donation, this year’s World Transplant Games featured ‘Tom’s Baton’, which travelled the length of the country in the run-up to the games, visiting transplant centres and highlighting how organ donation passes on the gift of life from one person to the next.
Lisa shares her perspective on the relay, experience of the games and reflects on the unique gift that is organ donation.
I will always look back on the summer of 2019 and the baton relay I took part in to herald the opening of the World Transplant Games with a mixture of emotions.
There will be sadness, because the very reason I was involved was the loss of my son Tom aged just 22 when a freak hockey accident caused a brain haemorrhage.
But there will also be pride in the amazing gift he gave more than 50 people through the life-saving and life-changing donations of his organs and tissues.
There will also be gratitude and admiration for all the people I met on the journey from London to Newcastle via Oxford, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – from the paramedics, orderlies, nurses, doctors, surgeons, living donors and recipients who shared their stories with me.
I lost my husband Graham to sepsis just a few weeks after Tom died and one of the last things he said to me was that I must keep Tom’s memory alive.
I know he would have approved of the creation of Tom’s Baton – a silver and bronze sculpture comprised of one hand passing a baton to another. For one thing he and Tom loved sport, and I am certain he would have liked the symbolism of one person handing on something precious.
When it was first suggested I go with the baton on its journey to the home of the 2019 World Transplant Games, I leapt at the opportunity to fulfil Graham’s wish and share Tom’s story, because although it is a tragedy that I and his sister Pippa live with every day, it is also a story of hope and optimism.
How could it not be when you see six-year-old Fatima whose life was saved by part of Tom’s liver? I was delighted she and her mum, Lubna, were at Whitechapel Hospital on the Monday we set off.
I was already in a whirl having appeared on ITV’s Lorraine show that morning but seeing Fatima’s beaming face gave me the confidence to speak to donor families, transplant games athletes and hospital staff as Pippa and I officially launched the relay.
While discussing the relay with indefatigable organiser, fixer, motivator and now firm friend Carole Stonehouse of the WTG Organising Committee, I had braced myself for plenty of questions and a few interviews along the journey.
But I could not have imagined how interest snowballed as the relay wound its way north.
At each new stop where we visited transplant centres, met staff and families and chatted about the baton, the attention from radio, TV and press grew stronger.
Fixing a smile on to my exhausted face became harder and harder but I wasn’t complaining – every photo call meant a new opportunity to spread the word about what Tom did.
When I look back now, I can barely believe the experiences I had with the baton on that 300-mile journey.
Boarding a punt in Oxford, meeting patients in Birmingham children’s hospital, standing on a helipad in a fireman’s helmet atop the hospital and sailing on a barge in Leeds – every day was a whirlwind of different challenges, new faces and heartwarming stories.
The finale in Newcastle saw us meeting Gordon and a group of wacky fundraising cyclists at The Angel of the North. It was special partly because we were at our journey’s end but mostly because Gordon has Tom’s heart. I can’t describe what it was like to feel its steady rhythm bringing new life to another person.
I’ll always know my son lives on, not just in mine and Pippa’s hearts and those of his family and friends, but now there are dozens of others in whom his life force resides. It is a comfort and I hope I’ve been able to pass that message on to others.
I’d barely arrived in Newcastle before the baton and I were heading south again – back to Manchester to appear on BBC Breakfast with Fatima and Lubna. Again, it was a chance to share Tom’s story and to talk about the pride and passion of the games.
In all of the madcap round of interviews, I never forgot that I was there to represent hundreds of donor families whose story is every bit as important as ours.
The week of the games was just as hectic as the relay as we took the baton to countless events to meet wave upon wave of people, each as interested and enthusiastic as the next.
Highlights included the athletics, the golf, where I met Lee Westwood and the chance to look around St James’ Park during the darts.
The closing ceremony was a truly wonderful, inspirational evening where I was so proud to hand Tom’s Baton to the organising committee of the next games in Houston, USA where it will be used as part of the build-up to the competition in 2021.
Tom’s story will be told and celebrated in Texas, which seems remarkable for such an unassuming, modest lad from Essex.
Many times during the relay, at the craziest moments, I stopped and wondered what he’d make of all this. I know he’d cringe at being any kind of figurehead, he’d just shrug and say he was only doing what anyone else would.
But I also know that if there was even the slightest chance his story inspired one more donor to sign up – a donor who like Tom could give such a precious gift – he’d be right behind it.
I’d like to thank all of the support team who worked so hard to make the relay possible, David Nix, of the Donor Family Network for the vision of the baton and its design, all of the dedicated and hard-working medical professionals who work miracles every day to transform peoples’ lives and most of all the donors and their families for the greatest gifts anyone could ever give – a second chance at life.