Susan Ralston, 32 from East Kilbride, has had to deal with organ donation from two very different perspectives. One as a daughter watching her mum wait for the kidney transplant she so desperately needs. And the other as a step daughter, helping to make the agonising decision to donate her step mum’s organs after she died suddenly, aged just 47.
Susan is backing the Organ Donation Scotland campaign, as she knows from first hand experience just how important speaking about organ donation can be – to those waiting and to the families who are approached about organ donation after the death of a loved one.
Susan’s step mum Millie Ross was a perfectly healthy 47 year old, who in March 2013 had an asthma attack which led to a major heart attack. She was admitted to A&E at Hairmyres Hospital, East Kilbride, and then transferred to ICU where every effort was made to save her, but to no avail. The family had to make the difficult decision to let her go.
Susan said, “It all happened pretty quickly. When we found out there was nothing more they could do for my step mum, it was a lot to take in. We were approached about organ donation, and the specialist nurse explained to us what it would involve. As someone with a mum who needs a kidney, I’ve always been a huge advocate of organ donation, but the fact was we didn’t know what Millie’s wishes were as it had never been discussed.
“Trying to make that decision was one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever had in my life, particularly as Millie was being kept alive by machines at this point. But we had to face up to the fact she was no longer there. We knew we’d have to say goodbye and then let her pass away on her own which was a big thing for us, but my step mum was the kind of person who would do anything for anyone. After talking it through as a family, we gave our consent.”
Millie went on to donate her kidneys and her liver, saving the lives of three people.
Susan said: “We did ask ourselves whether we’d made the right decision, but when we heard that Millie was living on in three other people, one of whom was critically ill prior to the transplant but now doing really well, it made us realise we’d done the right thing.”
Susan was in the difficult position of having to separate her emotions about her mum’s illness from the situation she unexpectedly found herself in when her step mum died. Susan’s mum Caroline Orr, 52, was placed on the kidney transplant list at the beginning of 2013, after being diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease 12 years ago.
Susan said: “Me and my two brothers were tested to see if we could give mum one of our kidneys, but unfortunately we weren’t a match. My mum’s health is deteriorating and being on dialysis three times a week is leaving her very tired, in a lot of pain and unable to work. She’s just waiting and hoping that the call comes soon, as are we.
“My mum and step mum were quite close and because of my mum’s illness and what she was going through, Millie was aware that mum would need a transplant eventually. Someone remembered Millie had commented that she didn’t understand why people wouldn’t join the Register, so we now know it’s what she would have wanted. It would just have made that difficult time easier if we’d talked about it.”
Susan is keen to use her experiences to get people talking about organ donation and signed up to the NHS Organ Donor Register.
She said: “I’ve been on the Register for years and have made sure my husband knows my wishes. Those wishes mean nothing unless the person making the decision honours them, so it’s really important to talk things through. I know that now.
“I’m very glad we made the decision to donate my step mum’s organs and we all feel that way. It’s still very early days, but it’s brought us a huge amount of comfort as a family as we come to terms with our loss.
“I’d urge anyone to make the time to chat to their loved ones and join the Register.”