Widower reveals it is a great comfort to know part of his late wife lives on after agreeing to donate her organs to save others
- Credit: Archant
There’s been yawning gulf in David McIntyre’s life since the sudden death of his wife, Barbara, writes Sheena Grant.
But he is comforted daily by the fact that in some ways she lives on, thanks to the organs she donated to others.
Next week, it will be three years since the magic went from David McIntyre’s life.
His kind, lively, beautiful wife, Barbara, collapsed after suffering a blood clot at the couple’s Braintree home as she prepared to set off for work one morning.
At the hospital, as David struggled to take in the news that Barbara - who just hours earlier had been so alive - was now brain dead, on life support and would not recover, he was approached about donating her organs to give others the chance of life.
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It wasn’t something he wanted to hear or think about but he knew it was what Barbara, 57, would have wanted. So he agreed.
Three years on David is clearly a man still grieving, almost still shocked at the suddenness with which life changed. But he knows he made the right decision that day, not just for the five people aged 14 to 50 who lived on because of Barbara, but for the comfort it has brought and continues to bring him too.
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“I’m proud of my wife and I know she would be proud of me for allowing it to happen,” he says. “But I also feel that I have not let her go totally. A little part of her is still living on somewhere out there. That is massive to me. It gives me enormous comfort to know that people are out there, alive, because of her.”
This September, he has been helping to promote National Transplant Week, urging people to sign the organ donor register and talk to their nearest and dearest about their wishes in the hope that barriers and taboos will be broken down.
Last year the number of people donating organs in the UK fell for the first time in 11 years. We also have one of the lowest rates in Europe for families consenting to organ donation. Yet the need is greater than ever. In the last five years, 58 people from Essex and 30 from Suffolk waiting for a transplant died because they could not get the right organ in time.
“I just encourage people to have that conversation with their loved ones,” says David. “I wouldn’t want anyone to lose someone they love. It tears me apart when I hear about it, thinking there’s another man or woman going through the same as me. But if the worst happens, unlike many decisions you have to make when someone dies, the one about organ donation is not a decision you can put off.”
Since Barbara’s death, says David, it’s like the magic has gone from his life.
“She was great fun,” he says, smiling. “She was very well known in Braintree, where she was carnival queen in 1971. She was good natured, charitable and she knew how to enjoy herself - a real live-wire. She was gorgeous as well, an absolute stunner.”
The couple, who married in the late 1980s and had three children from previous relationships between them, had only been back from a holiday in Canada a few days when Barbara collapsed.
“She had sprained her ankle so I was at home that morning and was going to give her a lift to work at the medical centre where she was a receptionist,” says David. “She just went upstairs to get something and collapsed at the top of the stairs. I knew it was serious. She did come round and was chatting, although she didn’t feel well, and arrested in the ambulance halfway to hospital.
“It was surreal, just sitting there, not being able to do anything. They worked on her and brought her back but told me if she did make it through she would be brain damaged because of the amount of time she had been under. The first reaction is, ‘I don’t care. I just want her back’ but later that day they said she was brain dead.
“It wasn’t a shock to be asked about organ donation but I remember being angry - not because I was being asked but because I was losing my wife. The surreal part is that she was lying there, on a life support machine but without a mark or blemish on her.
“Barbara and I had discussed organ donation but I would have agreed to it anyway, even if we hadn’t. Barbie - that’s what we called her - loved shopping. We often joke in the family that the people who got her organs will see an increase in their spending now. I know that if it had been me who died instead of her, she would be making the same sort of jokes. That’s the sort of relationship we had. We always had such a great time.
“I can’t say how much I miss her. I’m not a recluse. I’ve got lots of friends. But there’s nothing and no-one like her.
“When she first died I couldn’t face coming home. If it wasn’t for the cats we had here I would have gone to live somewhere else for three months. Barbara was such a live-wire who would talk to anyone and was so well known that it took me a long time to be able to walk through Braintree, knowing I would always meet someone who knew her.”
David is having part of the house redecorated but Barbara’s presence can still be felt in the decor and furnishings, from the bright, floral wallpaper to the scatter cushions and the vase of silk flowers in the conservatory.
He admits to trying to keep it that way, putting up pictures he knows she would have liked to balance out ones he has chosen that he knows she would not.
“I’ve got used to living on my own now,” he says. “I’ve got a couple of cleaners but I have a house-wifely routine and do the washing and ironing. I’m also working full time (as a company director) and do whatever I can to help raise awareness about organ donation.”
As part of that awareness raising, he’s keen to bust some of the myths that surround the subject.
“People are sometimes worried doctors might let someone die to get their organs,” he says. “All I can say is that they did every possible thing they could to keep my wife alive. I know people sometimes say that if you’re on life support, do they write you off too soon to get the organs? I can’t believe any doctor would do that. All I know is that they fought for a long time to save my wife.”
Despite all that he is not in favour of changing things so that consent for organ donation is assumed unless people actively opt-out in their lifetime.
Barbara died the day after she collapsed.
About two weeks later David received a letter, one of many, offering condolences. But this one was from the transplant service and it also contained information about who Barbara’s organs had helped.
“You can open that letter, keep it or send it back and ask them to keep it for you until you feel ready to read it,” he says. “I didn’t feel I could open it at that time but then I went into Barbara’s workplace and someone said, ‘If you can’t open it here, where can you open it?’ So I opened it there. It told me that initially three people had benefited, two aged 30 and one aged 50. I agreed to donate her liver and kidneys but I wouldn’t let them take her eyes. She was far too beautiful for that.
“Later, I got a letter about a 17-year-old and later still one about about a 14-year-old who had also benefited. That’s what pleased us most, the youngsters who were helped. One year on they were all going strong. I hope they still are.”
Would you donate your organs? Are there certain parts of you that you would not donate? Perhaps you have been helped by an organ donor? Share your stories using our comments section below or email us.