It’s the phone call no parent ever wants to get: Rachael Fegan was in Australia when she discovered her son had been rushed to hospital.
She began the long, anguished journey home to Donegal, where she found her beloved son Gerry (22) in hospital in Letterkenny. He had tried to take his own life and nothing could be done to save him.
“I kept thinking, if I just got home everything would be okay,” says Rachael. “They didn’t make me aware of how bad things were. He was on life support when I got there. He was pronounced dead at 12.35pm on Saturday, July 26, 2014,” recalls Rachael.
She remembers being asked to consider donating his organs, but says she couldn’t answer yes or no because she was simply too heartbroken.
At the hospital, Gerry’s friend passed over his wallet and mobile phone to Rachael. On opening the wallet, Rachael saw his donor card.
“I took the card and realised I didn’t have a choice. Gerry had made his choice,” she says. Rachael returned to speak to the doctor and informed him of Gerry’s wishes. It is the first time Rachael has spoken to anyone outside of her family about Gerry’s death, which devastated her. Pictures of her son, who was a father of a son himself, adorn the walls of her home in Ramelton, Co Donegal.
One framed picture of Gerry contains shells from a local beach with the words: “Your life was a blessing, your memory a treasure. You are loved beyond words and missed beyond measure.”
While tears are never far from the surface, Rachael wanted to speak about how proud she is of Gerry for his decision to become a donor. And she says that while the pain of losing him is with her every day, there is some solace in knowing that his organs mean that other people have a good quality of life today.
This week is Organ Donor Awareness Week, when the Irish Kidney Association encourages the public to support organ donation for transplantation by letting their loved ones know their wishes.
Rachael says she didn’t know her son was a donor and had she not received his wallet containing his donor card, she may never have known. She says she did have conversations in the past with her children about organ donation, because she herself had to have a kidney removed when she was a teenager.
“I used to say to them that it’s important to become a donor, but that’s going back to when they were kids,” says Rachael, who’s also mum to Annie and Ricky, both in their 20s.
Rachael recalls that fateful day at the hospital when she took Gerry’s donor card, noting that he had signed it at the back. When she had informed the medical staff of the hospital, from there, everything moved quickly. She was informed that the transplant team were coming from Dublin.
“My heart was just broken. I felt he’s gone, but he’s going to do something for other people. I wanted to stay in the hospital until they did everything. The transplant coordinator at the time gave me her number and told me to call if I ever needed to talk. At 7am the next morning, I rang her to see if everything had gone okay. I think I asked her was Gerry okay,” says Rachael.
She learned that three transplant operations were already done. “They took his two kidneys, the liver, the lungs and the heart. After Gerry’s funeral, I made another call and the coordinator told me that the surgeries had gone very well. She told me two men in their 40s had one each of his kidneys and his lungs went to a 22-year-old. His heart went to a 53-year-old man,” she says.
“I felt so proud of Gerry that he was a donor. He has given a lease of life to these people who had struggled, but it’s done me good knowing that a boy the same age as Gerry lived. He may not have survived otherwise,” says Rachael.
“It does me good on days to know that his good heart is still beating – that good heart is still out there beating. Gerry never made himself out to be this great person, but I’m so proud of him. He didn’t even tell me he had got a donor card. That’s just the way he was,” she says.
“When I think about Gerry, I think about the recipients of his organs too. There’s never a day I don’t shed a tear about him, but I have that bit of comfort,” she adds.
Every year, Rachael attends a memorial service for families of donors and recipients. It’s something she looks forward to, especially hearing the stories of those who survived because of organ donation. “I come away from that feeling peaceful,” she says.
Three months after Gerry died, Rachael got a thank you card from the wife of the man who had received one of Gerry’s kidneys. Rachael wrote back, saying she was delighted that this family’s life was better as a result of Gerry’s gift.
“I said it was my son’s own choice and I told her that her husband was in my prayers every day.
“My other children are donors now. I would encourage people to carry a card; more people should carry one to be able to help other people,” says Rachael.
She says even though it’s very difficult, more people should have the conversation about being a donor.
“I’ll never learn to live with what happened to Gerry, but I have to get up every day and deal with it. I would never doubt Gerry’s decision [to be a donor]. It should be something everyone considers,” she says.
According to Mark Murphy, chief executive of the Irish Kidney Association, it’s really important that people have these kinds of conversations with their families, so everyone is aware of their loved ones wishes.
He says there are around 550 people in Ireland awaiting life-saving heart, lung, liver, kidney and pancreas transplants, but thanks to the gift of organ donation, almost 4,000 transplanted people in Ireland are enjoying extended life.
The focus of Organ Donor Awareness Week this year is to remind individuals to talk to their families about their organ donation wishes and keep the reminders of their decision visible by carrying the organ donor card, permitting Code 115 to be included on their driver’s licence, or downloading the ‘digital organ donor card’ app to their smartphone.
Information fact files, which accompany the free organ donor cards, are obtainable from the Irish Kidney Association and are available nationwide from pharmacies, GP surgeries and post offices. Organ donor cards can also be obtained by phoning the Irish Kidney Association at 01 620 5306 or free text the word DONOR to 50050.
Visit website ika.ie/card
You can also download a free ‘digital organ donor card’ app to your phone.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article please contact Samaritans helpline 116 123 or Aware helpline 1800 80 48 48 or Pieta House on 1800 247 247.