Sheila's story 

'Gift of life' inspires Sheila to help other liver patients

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Monday, January 09, 2012
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Plymouth Herald

A LIVER transplant patient saved by an unknown donor said the "gift of life" has inspired her to provide vital support for others.

Sheila Connolly, aged 60, of Crownhill, was almost killed by a severe liver disease linked to diabetes.

She was admitted to intensive care multiple times while she waited 17 months for a transplant.

The liver came from a stranger – someone who had pledged to donate their organs after death.

Sheila, a grandmother of eight, is setting up a support group for other patients and their carers.

She told her story to raise awareness of the Friends of Liver Lifeline, which she has launched with her husband Stephen and fellow transplant patient Michael Stratford.

The charity will also raise money for the South West Liver Lifeline, which supports the work of Derriford Hospital's liver unit.

Sheila, a former cleaning company manager, said: "An unknown donor gave me the precious gift of life.

"I've got my whole life back and I can't explain how magical it is. I can't waste it.

"But somewhere a family is missing someone. Because of them, I feel I have to make a difference and give something back.

"It's so important to me that we make a success of this support group."

Sheila was diagnosed with nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (Nash) in 2007 after her health gradually deteriorated. She collapsed at home and was admitted to Derriford.

Known as a 'silent' condition, Nash resembles alcoholic liver disease but occurs in people who drink little or no alcohol.

Sheila was diagnosed by specialists and placed on the waiting list for a liver.

It was touch and go whether she would survive the wait. She lost mobility and her sight.

"I was in intensive care three times in the 17 months," she said. "Three times I crashed and three times they brought me back. My liver was failing.

"I know people who didn't last until they got an organ. I was fortunate."

When a liver finally became available, Sheila underwent the operation in London, to where all liver transplant patients from Plymouth travel.

"It was like someone switched a light on," she said. "I could see again, I could walk.

"But while everyone else was over the moon because I had survived, I wasn't.

"I couldn't understand why I had survived. Why had someone else died and I had lived? I felt I was nothing important.

"I went into counselling and it gradually came to the point that I realised I wanted to make a difference."

Backed by Derriford Hospital specialists, Sheila now wants to help support others.

"It's just someone to talk to when you are feeling really low," she said. "We are here for people to tell their worries to and, if we can help, we will.

"We appreciate that it is not just patients who need support, but also carers, just having someone to talk to is a great help when your loved one is so ill."

Sheila praised the Derriford Hospital staff who saved her life – particularly Dr Jonathan Mitchell and Dr Matthew Cramp – for their "wonderful" care.

She still goes to the hospital every three months so doctors can monitor the function her new liver, which could be affected by Nash.

Sheila and other transplant patients have already donated £2,129, from previous fundraising efforts, to the South West Liver Lifeline.

The South West Liver Unit at Derriford Hospital is a centre of research and expertise. It also aims to raise awareness of liver health issues that affect people in the region.

Liver patients and carers can contact Sheila or Steve at the Friends of Liver Lifeline on 01752 934942 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              01752 651596      end_of_the_skype_highlighting. There is also a 'friends of liver life line' Facebook page. Anyone who wants to help raise funds for the charity is also welcome to contact the couple.

People can join the NHS Organ Donor Register by calling the 24-hour NHS Donor Line on 0300 123 23 23 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              0300 123 23 23      end_of_the_skype_highlighting or visiting www.uktransplant.org.uk 

Michaels story 

A STRANGER saved Michael Stratford's life.

During the six months he waited for a liver transplant he suffered multiple life-threatening collapses.

Michael's liver was failing due to hepatitis B, which he contracted from polluted seawater during a Spanish holiday.

The former bus driver, aged 66, of Stonehouse, received what he calls "the gift of life" from an anonymous donor – someone who had pledged to donate their organs after death.

Michael's experience inspired him to help other patients and their carers through the trauma of liver disease.

He is a founder member of new Plymouth-based support group Friends of Liver Lifeline.

It will meet for the second time at Derriford Hospital on May 30.

Michael said: "Someone died and saved my life.

"I don't know who they or their family were. They don't know who I am but they did this marvellous thing.

"Before the transplant I was in a terrible state. I didn't think I would make the operation.

"You are deteriorating all the time. There's nothing the doctors can do but keep an eye on you until you get a donor.

"After being given the gift of life I want to do everything I can to help through the liver group."

Michael caught the hepatitis B virus on holiday aged just 23.

He was diagnosed at Plymouth's Naval Hospital after feeling unwell on his return home.

Over the decades the disease gradually destroyed his liver, causing chronic cirrhosis, or scarring.

He retired as a Plymouth Citybus driver when he was 46 after falling and shattering his elbow. Michael also has diabetes, bowel condition Crohn's disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

He moved to the Coast del Sol, returning to Plymouth five times a year for check ups at Derriford Hospital.

He came home permanently in 2008 after collapsing due to advanced cirrhosis of the liver. He had developed encephalopathy – confusion and disorientation when the brain is damaged by toxic substances normally removed by the liver.

He was placed on the waiting list for a liver. As he has common blood type AB he received an organ after six months and one week. Many people wait longer or die before the call comes.

"I got the phone call on the 12th of December," said Michael. "They asked 'Is your bag packed?'

"I was picked up in half an hour, taken up to King's College Hospital in London by blue light. I got there for midnight and was down in theatre by 1am."

The operation took seven hours. He came home on Christmas Eve.

Michael, who is single, receives check ups at Derriford every three months.

Friends of Liver Lifeline consists of liver patients who want to help other patients and their carers cope with liver disease. They can offer information, advice or a friendly chat.

The group has been formed by Michael, fellow Plymouth liver transplant patient and campaigner Sheila Connolly and her husband Stephen.

Anyone affected by liver problems is welcome to attend their next meeting at the Postgraduate Centre, a red brick building located behind Derriford Hospital's maternity unit, on May 30 from midday until 2.30pm.

Contact Sheila on 01752 651596 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              01752 651596      end_of_the_skype_highlighting for further information 

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