Joanne speaks with pride and emotion for the first time as she shares how her dad from Sedgefield in County Durham went on to save lives after a fatal epileptic seizure, and previous battles earlier on in life with bowel and throat cancer, at the sprightly age of 72 years old.
“My Dad’s Story
Ian Spring March 1942 – September 2014
In September 2014 my Dad, Ian Spring, became an organ donor at 72 years old. His corneas and kidneys were found to be viable for donation and within 24 hours of his death his kidneys were transplanted, saving the lives of two people desperately in need of a healthy kidney.
It surprised us that Dad could be an organ donor, he’d had bowel cancer and throat cancer, and, at his age, we presumed that he would be too old. We are so glad that our assumptions were wrong.
The first time I spoke to Dad about organ donation was when I was 17 and got my first driving license. He showed me the donor card application, which had come with the licence, and encouraged me to fill it in. I thought that was a bit morbid, but Dad always called a spade a spade and told me that the chances of me having a sudden death would probably be highest in a car accident, so it would be good to be an organ donor, and to put my donor card with my driving licence where people could find it, which I did.
Over the years, I realised the need for organ donors when I lost two friends who needed organ transplants; one was, Mark, the father of my son’s friend. He was in his 40’s and had heart and kidney failure because of type one diabetes. He died whilst being on the organ donor register. Another friend, David, died from an un-repairable damaged blood vessel in his 50’s.
As well as being the sort of man who called a spade a spade, Dad loved life and lived it to excess; He worked hard, and he played hard. He talked a lot, laughed a lot, loved his food, and his beer, and from 13 years old he smoked rolled up cigarettes. His own father smoked a pipe, so I’m guessing that Dad probably stole a bit of his tobacco to make his roll ups. He successfully gave up smoking on his 50th birthday.
When he was in his 60’s Dad finally gave in and accepted that he needed a knee replacement and had surgery. The operation went well, and his knee was fine, but when he came home, he complained of stomach pains, which were thought to be a side effect of the anaesthetic. He collapsed and was rushed into hospital. An (unknown) abscess in his bowel had ruptured and damaged his bowel. Dad had a section of his bowel removed and a stoma (colostomy bag) fitted. The section of bowel removed, was cancerous, and the doctor was certain that he had removed all the infected parts.
When he recovered, Dad’s new project was to heal and be well enough to have the damaged section of his bowel re-joined and the stoma removed, which happened seven months after his surgery.
A few months after this, Dad started to suffer from ear-ache and a sore throat, and his dentures felt uncomfortable. He sent the next 18 months going from his doctor and his dentist, taking courses of antibiotics, but the symptoms were persistent. He was sent to the dental hospital in Newcastle, as his gums seemed to be shrinking. Whilst he was being examined a dentist accidentally cut his gum and discovered a tumour growing just beneath the surface. Further scan revealed that Dad had throat cancer, which extended from the bottom of his throat right up to his gum.
Dad agreed to have extensive, life changing, surgery to remove the tumours and maxillofacial surgery to rebuild his throat and neck. To remove all the cancer, Dad had some of his jaw, gum and tongue removed. He already had false teeth, but after surgery, these were too uncomfortable to wear. His life did change, dramatically. His diet changed as he couldn’t chew and he couldn’t speak. He had radiotherapy and speech therapy to teach him how to form speech in a whole new way. His prognosis was that the surgery could extend his life by six months to a year. He wanted the surgery to try to have more time with his family and he would be a good case for the surgeon and medical students to learn from. Dad was very proud of being a teaching case and loved hearing his doctor recount his surgery to medical students. He was grateful to be offered the surgery and glad to be able to give back to others as a teaching case study.
Dad’s recovery exceeded everyone’s expectations and he was with us for seven years after his surgery.
In the last couple of years of his life he developed epilepsy and in September 2014 he returned home from a friend’s funeral and had a seizure. He stopped breathing and his heart stopped. My Mam called for help and their neighbours came running; both medically trained, they immediately began CPR whilst waiting for an ambulance. It’s hard to say exactly, but they think that it was after more than ten minutes of CPR that Dad’s heart started beating again. I received a phone call from the ambulance and didn’t expect dad to still be alive when I got to the hospital. I arrived at North Tees Hospital a couple of hours later to find him in ITU on life support. He had colour in his cheeks and he just looked like he was sleeping. Over the next hours the medical staff took excellent care of him, watching him round the clock for any signs of life but we realised that he was probably brain stem dead.
We talked about how proud Dad was to be a case study and how he’d always wanted to be an organ donor when he died, but at his age and medical history, we thought this was a long shot. We mentioned Dad’s wishes to the Sister on duty, before they even mentioned organ donation to us, and she checked the organ donor register on her computer. Dad’s details came up and it turned out that only a couple of months earlier, he had re-registered his details and updated his wishes to say that on his death he wanted to donate all of his organ and tissue. Seeing that on the screen reassured all of us, this was exactly what Dad would want and the Sister asked for our permission that if and when the time came, she could contact the organ donor team. We all agreed, but were worried that we would be wasting their time as Dad’s organs wouldn’t be viable.
The organ donor team met us at the hospital and they were amazing. They took us through the last hours of Dad’s life with such care that enabled us to understand everything that was happening and Dad died with the respect and dignity that he deserved.
They arrived, having already studied all of Dad’s (extensive) medical history and they went through it with us step by step. Surprisingly, they felt that Dad could potentially be a donor and they explained how different organs and tissue could be used. We gave permission for Dad’s wishes to be carried out and after he had received every test (twice) and everyone was agreed that that the only thing keeping him alive was the life support machine, we said our private goodbyes and Dad’s body went for surgery. My sister was even allowed to accompany him to the theatre, to wait and accompany him post-surgery to the mortuary. He was never alone.
He was treated with the utmost care during the surgery and you couldn’t tell that his organs had been removed; the only visible mark was a slight bit of bruising around his eyes, as his corneas had been donated, but we knew Dad wouldn’t have minded a bit of bruising to give someone the give of sight.
The next day we were contacted by the donor team and told that both of Dad’s kidneys were healthy and had been transplanted into two people, saving both their lives. His corneas were healthy and being held to be transplanted as soon as possible and that if he had been younger they’d have used his heart as it too was very healthy, but sadly too old to transplant.
We were thrilled. It was strange that in our grief, we felt happy, but it meant that all Dad’s suffering and determination to recover and keep healthy and well for as long as he could was worth something more – it gave life to others - and he could give something back to the medical profession he was so grateful to.
If he was here now Dad would give two pieces of advice:
1. Don’t smoke – don’t start smoking and if you are smoking give up today.
2. Register on the organ donor register and tell your family your wishes.
We often say that “thank you” isn’t enough and Dad thanked his medical team all the time. Donating his organs when he died was a huge thank you – a lifesaving thank you for the gift of his own life. “ #ShareYourWishes ❤️💙