Bishop's Stortford man Stephen Cooper, the 100th multi-organ transplant patient at Addenbrooke’s, salutes the surgeons and donor's family who gave him a new life
A year ago this month, seriously ill Stephen Cooper was nervously awaiting being taken into a hospital operating theatre for a pioneering procedure that would transform his life.
Stephen, 64, of Thorley Park Road, Bishop's Stortford, had suffered from Crohn's disease for more than 40 years. After multiple operations, he had been on an intravenous liquid diet for 20 years and at his lowest point his weight dropped to between seven and eight stones.
He was finally admitted to hospital after suffering kidney failure in 2018, so he was put on a list and prepared for a multi-visceral transplant at Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge – the only one in the UK to carry out the procedure on adults.
For anyone who has been awaiting a transplant it's a nerve-racking and frustrating time, when there are many false alarms.
"In February last year I got my first call at 2am," said Stephen. "You have half an hour to pack your bags before having blood tests and tracking, and then you wait and see if the organ is suitable."
Twice Stephen had the call without success. The third time, again in the early hours of the morning, after a long, nervous wait, it was finally decided he was a match.
"I had to wait all day and the following night and didn't get the go-ahead until the next morning at 9am. Half an hour later I was in theatre."
The marathon 18-hour operation to give him a new bowel, liver, kidney and pancreas was undertaken in shifts by lead surgeon for Cambridge Intestinal and Multi-visceral Transplant Team, Andrew Butler, and fellow world expert transplant surgeons Neil Russell, Paul Gibbs, Raaj Praseedom and Irum Amin.
Stephen, a former mechanical engineer, said: “When I finally woke up I was delirious – a side effect of all the drugs. I was living a nightmare with crazy things going on in my mind and pushing my wife [Andrea] away because I thought she was in some sort of danger. None of it made sense.
“It took three weeks to overcome those nightmares, but the staff were absolutely brilliant and Andrea was fantastically supportive, even though it must have been so upsetting for her. I moved to a high-dependency ward with one-to-one nursing and within a few weeks I was on an exercise bike and the road to recovery."
A year on, and although he had setbacks with several readmissions to hospital since February, he has turned the corner.
“I know it’s a real cliché to say it is life-changing, but it is," said Stephen. "I feel fit and well, can go for long walks and keep myself busy in the garden. I eat things that I haven't eaten for years – tomatoes, onions, fruit and all kinds of other things I missed.
“I cannot believe the surgeons do what they do. However, it’s very much a team effort with all sorts of people involved before, during and after my operation. I simply can’t thank them all enough.”
Although Stephen did not know it at the time, he was the 100th patient to receive an intestine-containing transplant since the team was established in 2007. His procedure was especially complex as he needed a liver and kidney transplant in addition to the intestine.
Stephen said a day does not go by when he does not think of the family of the person who donated the organs.
“My message is make your family aware of your wishes to be a donor otherwise it places them under increased pressure when they need it least, and threatens your last wish to help someone like me,” he added.
The team at Addenbrooke's includes dedicated retrieval surgeons, who regularly fly all over the country. In the case of multi-visceral transplants they have to be fast, as a bowel needs to be transplanted within six hours of removal from the donor.
Mr Butler said: “We can only perform these transplants because of the generosity and courage of the donors and their families, and because we are in a hospital where everyone works together to support us in undertaking these complex procedures."
Lead physician for the team Dr Lisa Sharkey added: “We spend so much time with patients before and after their operations we get to know them individually, and it’s lovely to see Stephen looking so well, happy and active. That’s what makes this job special for us.”
Stephen’s story comes as NHS Blood and Transplant prepares to launch Organ Donation Week from September 7 to 13.
The initiative focuses on raising awareness of organ donation. This year's will be the first since Max and Keira’s Law came into effect in England in May. The new law means that from now on, people in England will be considered as wanting to donate, unless they opt out, are one of the excluded groups or tell their family that they don’t want to donate.
It also emphasises that fewer than half of families agree to donations going ahead if they are unaware of their loved one’s decision. That rises to nine out of 10 when the decision to be an organ donor is known.
Anyone who wants to learn more about organ donation or to register their organ donation decision should visit www.organdonation.nhs.uk .