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Our truly special friendship: Lily thought she'd never get over the death of her son. Then she received a deeply moving letter from the woman whose life his organs saved
On a blustery day, Lily Turley and Cara Hearst are sipping tea together in a cafe. Lily is still grieving after the death of her 13-year-old son; 20-year-old Cara is three years on from a life-saving organ transplant. Between them is a powerful bond.
It was Lily’s son, Daryl, who posthumously gave his liver to Cara, and the relationship between the women is truly exceptional.
In the year from April 2010 to March 2011, 3,740 organ transplants took place in Britain, but the vast majority of recipients have never met their donor’s families.
There are strict NHS rules concerning such contact. There must be consent on both sides before any meeting can take place, and, perhaps surprisingly, this rarely happens.
A unique bond: Cara Hearst and lily Turley developed an exceptional relationship after Cara's life was saved when she received a liver donated posthumously by Lily's son who had been tragically killed in a road accident
Sometimes, however, it does, and the result can be a poignant friendship, such as the one between Lily and Cara.
As they sit together in comfortable companionship, Lily says: ‘It’s nice to see someone who was very close to death blossom. Cara’s got her whole life ahead of her. She’s a young lady and I hope she lives until she’s 100.’
As Lily speaks fondly of her new friend, it’s impossible not to be mindful of the teenage son of whom she was so cruelly robbed. Daryl was a fairly typical 13-year-old. He loved football and fishing expeditions with his father, and had even experienced his first romance.
Then, at the end of January 2009, he crossed a road one Saturday evening in his hometown of Hamilton, 12 miles from Glasgow, and was hit by a motorcyclist. He was struck on the side of the head and sustained severe injuries.
Doctors at Glasgow’s South General Hospital told Lily and her husband Davy that they thought Daryl had a chance of survival. They were told to go home and get some rest.
Keepsake: The small photo of Daryl Turley which Cara carries with her everywhere
But their phone rang at 5am the next day and they knew instantly it was terrible news. Daryl’s condition had deteriorated rapidly and they were to return to the hospital straight away.
Lily recalls: ‘The doctor sat us down and said: “Look, there’s nothing we can do to save Daryl. He is on a ventilator. That is the only thing that is keeping him alive.” I remember feeling it in my knees. I was begging him; there must be something. But he said: “There is nothing.”’
Across the Irish sea, another tragedy seemed to be unfolding. Cara, a 17-year-old A-level student from Newtownards, in County Down, had been feeling unwell in the weeks before Christmas. Her GP was convinced that it was glandular fever, and Cara thought she had just been overdoing it during the party season.
But she started turning alarmingly yellow (‘like Homer Simpson,’ she says) and in the New Year her parents took her to hospital, where it rapidly became clear that her liver was shutting down.
Doctors said she had just days to live. She was in urgent need of a liver transplant.
Meanwhile, in Glasgow, Lily and Davy were asked that question no parent ever wants to answer: would they be prepared to consent to Daryl’s organs being donated.
‘Davy and I turned to each other and instantly agreed that we had to. After all, reversing the roles, if someone had come to us at that moment and said there was an organ that could save Daryl, we would have jumped at the chance.’
In all, five of Daryl’s organs were suitable for transplant. The patients selected to receive them ranged in age from two years to 33.
Cara, who by now had been flown to London for specialist treatment for Wilson’s disease (the rare genetic condition that was causing her illness), was cast a lifeline. She was told a liver had been found and the transplant would go ahead.
After a ten-hour operation, the transplant was a success. While Cara was recovering, her transplant coordinator gave her a leaflet explaining that, if she wanted to, she could write to the family of the donor. ‘The letter took a long time, a lot of thought,’ she recalls. ‘It was a few pages long. I just wanted to express how grateful I was. It was hard to put into words.’
To her surprise, Cara received a reply. Lily told her the liver had come from her 13-year-old son, Daryl.
‘I was shocked by his age,’ admits Cara, who is now studying nursing at Queen’s University, Belfast. ‘I hadn’t expected him to be so young.’
Lily and Cara arranged to meet up, although they both began to feel incredibly apprehensive about it (especially as BBC Scotland got wind of their meeting and were granted permission to tag along).
‘There were so many things going through my head,’ says Cara. ‘I worried that she might be disappointed after meeting me. And I was worried that I’d get really emotional.’
And Lily admits: ‘I was terrified before my original meeting with Cara. Susan, the transplant coordinator, arrived to take me to the hotel for the meeting and saw that I was shaking.
‘She’d also brought along a box of tissues — but in the end there weren’t any tears.
‘I was just overwhelmed to see how healthy Cara was.’
Under the rules of the NHSBT (NHS Blood and Transplant), the organisation responsible for all organ transplants in the UK, Lily and Cara were permitted to meet for a maximum of two hours initially.
‘They want you to take the relationship slowly,’ says Lily. ‘So we sat down and chatted, then I was told that the time was up. We then had to go and speak to the BBC for the 6pm news. It was a pretty in-your-face experience.’
Lily gave Cara a picture of Daryl, which Cara put in her wallet so it goes wherever she goes. The photo of a fresh-faced, smiling Daryl was taken just days before he died.
He was a ‘late baby but a lovely surprise’, says Lily, who had Daryl unexpectedly when she was 34. She already had a 14-year-old son, Billy, from a previous marriage.
‘Daryl was a very happy boy and achieved a lot more than others his age. He was full of energy.
‘He loved fishing with his dad and had joined a pike angling club and managed to win a fishing competition, picking up a junior trophy.
‘He also played on two football teams and loved dancing. He was always laughing and very witty. He was my little pal. We were very, very close.’
In need: Cara, from Newtownards, in County Down, Northern Ireland, was told she had just days to live after her liver suddenly began shutting down at the age of 17
In the early days following Daryl’s death, Lily says she did well just to get out of bed in the morning. One ritual that helped give her life some structure was visiting Daryl’s grave twice a day. (She now goes twice a week.)
Nearly three years on, Lily’s face seems worn with grief. She admits that her marriage to Davy almost fell apart after Daryl’s death.
‘I was fighting for my marriage at one stage. I was struggling. But Davy and I came to understand that we were grieving at different points. We were experiencing these terrible emotions in different ways, and we each had to be strong for the other.’
Lily says that she and Davy have not had any counselling. The one thing that has evidently helped Lily enormously with her loss, however, is getting to know Cara — and now they both promote organ donation at seminars, talking to audiences about their experiences.
‘Speaking to Cara has been more healing than anything else,’ says Lily, who seems if not quite maternal towards Cara, then like an affectionate aunt. ‘I’d love to hear about Cara’s children, if she ever has them in the future,’ she says.
Why is it so rare for organ recipients and the families of donors to meet
Perhaps it’s because recipients feel uncomfortable about intruding on a family’s grief, or even guilty; or else the donor’s family themselves feel uneasy about contacting a stranger in such strange, terrible circumstances.
But the fact remains that organ donation is the only way that thousands of acutely ill people will ever have a chance of leading a decent life.
Time to sign up: Only 29.5 per cent of the population are currently on the Organ Donor Register
More than 10,000 people are in need of an organ transplant, and with only 29.5 per cent of the population signed up on the Organ Donor Register, approximately three people die each day while waiting for an organ.
Lily was baffled why so few recipients try to contact the families of donors until she went to a seminar for donor families, where one recipient explained her experience.
‘She said she didn’t want to contact the family because she felt like she would be rubbing salt into their wounds. The thing is, though, it definitely makes it easier.’
Cara’s mother has also met Lily. ‘Meeting Lily really helped my mum,’ says Cara. ‘The thought of losing me was so painful for her. She was very, very protective of me for the next year or so as I stayed at home recovering.’
While the three women have met and found the experience beneficial to them, the same cannot be said for the men involved.
‘In all honesty, Davy is scared,’ says Lily. ‘He is worried that the emotion will overwhelm him. He’s coming slowly out of his shell.’
Cara adds: ‘My dad is a bit like Davy. He’s very worried that he’d get really upset and scare Lily away.’
‘It’s a man thing, Cara,’ smiles Lily. ‘When they meet — which I hope they do — it will be tears galore. We can just leave them in the room together with a box of tissues.’
Daryl’s gift has helped not just Cara but four other people — and it’s clear that Lily is desperately keen to know what has happened to them too.
Her sad face lights up when she declares: ‘There are parts of Daryl that are still alive.’
Knowing where they are and whose lives his organs have saved would comfort her greatly — but only one other family has sent her a note.
‘Just before the operation to remove his organs, I got into bed with Daryl to give him a final cuddle, to speak to him,’ recalls Lily. ‘You can imagine there were all sorts of emotions. But I remember saying to myself: “I’ll hear this heart beating again.”
‘Some day, I hope it will happen. Maybe when the wee boy who got his heart becomes a man, he’ll come to find me. After all, it’s because of Daryl’s heart that he’s alive.’
To sign up on the Organ Donor Register, call 0300 123 23 23 or go to www.organdonation.nhs.uk A version of this article appeared in The Guardian.