Respecting the gift

Two days away from death’s door.  That’s how close Brenda Roberts, 62, from Ruthin in Denbighshire came to dying from liver disease.  Fortunately for Brenda, a suitable organ was found in time and she underwent her life-saving liver transplant operation in 2012.

Brenda was 39 when she was diagnosed with liver disease, a condition called primary biliary cirrhosis.  She was told at the time that she would need a liver transplant at some point in the future, but probably not for some 15 years.

Last year, when a routine blood test came back with what doctors called ‘crazy’ results, Brenda was called in to Glan Clwyd Hospital for further assessment, which resulted in a transfer to St James’s in Leeds three days later.

“That came as a real surprise,” said Brenda.  “I’d been feeling very well.  I was fit but basically my liver was shot and only a transplant could sort it out.  I’d just celebrated my 60th birthday in August last year and, as soon as I hit that milestone, I went downhill fast.  I was hospitalized in Leeds and was told I wouldn’t be leaving without a transplant.

“That was hard on my family, but my partner Gwyn and sister Wendy were amazing.  They offered me half of their livers, as did my nephew Robert and his friend James.  It was so touching.”

Gwyn Williams, Brenda’s partner, added, “Seeing Brenda so ill was dreadful.  She’d been so healthy for so long that her illness, when it took hold of her shortly after her 60th birthday, was a shock for us all.  She’s been such an inspiration and I’m so grateful to the all the staff at St James’s Hospital in Leeds for the care she received in hospital and continues to receive now through her ongoing check-ups.”

Having been placed on the transplant waiting list in Summer 2012, Brenda was categorized as a priority patient due to the seriousness of her condition.  An organ became available for her and the transplant operation went ahead soon after.  Doctors told her afterwards that her condition was so serious she would not have lived another two days.

During Brenda’s assessments doctors also discovered a cyst on her pancreas and removed this, as planned, during the transplant operation.  Brenda continued, “The transplant saved my life in more ways than one.  The cyst that was removed was found to have pre-cancerous cells and was blocking a bile duct.  This problem would have been masked by the liver disease and could have had its own dire consequences and complications.”

During her stay in hospital, Brenda said that her love of golf and the support she received from her fellow members at Pwllglas Golf Club kept her going.

“I had a picture of the golf club at my hospital bedside and that was my drive to get better.  The photo showed Pwllglas in springtime, with the daffodils out in force.  I made it my aim to get back out on the course by the next spring.  I actually managed to surprise myself and played my first couple of holes before Christmas.  I did my first full round the following March and was back playing league golf soon after.

“Golf was my incentive to get better, but getting better was also my way of thanking my family and friends for their tremendous support.  I’d had over 50 cards from members of Pwllglas Golf Club when I was in hospital and they took great care of me during my recovery.  My sister, Wendy Roberts, takes over as lady vice captain next year and her chosen charity is Transplant Sport UK.”

Brenda has always led an active and healthy life.  She feels a strong sense of responsibility to look after herself and her new liver, in honour of her organ donor.

“One of the best ways I can thank my liver donor is by keeping myself as healthy as possible.  It saddens me that people often wrongly associate liver disease with alcoholism.  I was never a drinker – in fact I probably drank less that your normal person.  I’m allowed to drink alcohol following my transplant but I rarely do, mainly out of respect for the gift of life I’ve been given.”

Asked about her opinion on the Welsh Government’s recently passed legislation on organ donation, moving to an opt-out system, Brenda said, “It’s absolutely brilliant.  More organs are needed to help save more lives.  Too many families refuse organ donation when they lose a loved one, sometimes even when they know they carried an organ donor card.  That’s grief and trauma coming into play.  I hope the new legislation will change that and make donating the norm.”

Last August, Brenda took part in the British Transplant Games in Bolton and won a gold and silver medal playing golf.  As a result of this, she was selected to play golf at the World Transplant Games in Argentina this August.  “Being selected to represent Team GB and NI in such an event is beyond my wildest dreams.  The games will be exactly three years after I was taken into hospital prior to my transplant.  I always hoped that I would play golf again, but never to be attending such an event. I am honored and humbled to be a part of it all.”