'A selfless gift' - how organ donor loved ones changed people's lives

Nick and Joanne Hext, left, and Herminio Astorga, right, with his family.

Nick and Joanne Hext, left, and Herminio Astorga, right, with his family. - Credit: Submitted

Families of organ donors who saved people's lives after their deaths have urged others to start the conversation with loved ones about donation.  

Today marks the start of Organ Donation Week, which aims to raise awareness and in particular encourage people to talk to their loved ones about their feelings on donation.

Laws in England changed last year to create an 'opt out' system, meaning all adults, with some exceptions, are now considered to have agreed to be a donor when they die.

But the NHS says it is still key to talk to family about what they would want, with loved ones' views taken into account.

An organ donation box arriving at a hospital for a transplant operation. Picture: SENT IN BY NHS BLO

An organ donation box arriving at a hospital for a transplant operation. Picture: SENT IN BY NHS BLOOD AND TRANSPLANT - Credit: SENT IN BY NHS BLOOD AND TRANSPLANT

According to an NHS Blood and Transplant activity report for 2020/21, 19 patients at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (NNUH) donated organs following their death, with another three at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Lynn and two at the James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston.

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The NNUH said those 19 donors had led to 56 organ donations to people in need of a life-saving transplant. It put the hospital in the top 20 donor hospitals in England last year.

For one Hellesdon family, organ donation enabled them to take something positive from a time of tragedy.

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Herminio Astorga, known as Pogs to his family, suffered a cardiac arrest while on a video call with friends last September.

The 52-year-old was resuscitated and taken to NNUH where he underwent emergency surgery.

Herminio Astorga with his family.

Herminio Astorga with his family. - Credit: The Astorga family

He could not be saved after suffering an extensive brain haemorrhage but was able to save and improve the lives of three people by donating both of his kidneys and his liver following his death.

His wife Maida and daughter Katrina both work as nurses at the NNUH and have thanked the hospital and the specialist nurses for organ donation.

Mrs Astorga said her husband’s death was very sudden, but she knew his wishes had been to donate his organs.

“We had a bypassing conversation about organ donation but did not realise he signed up twice to be on the organ donor register," she said.

"It has been an eye-opener and it has been really fulfilling for our family to know that he saved another life and from our sadness something positive came from it. It has got our whole community talking about the issue which could go on to save further lives in the future."

His daughter added that it had made a huge difference to the family to receive a letter from one of the organ recipients about the life-changing impact that his gift had made to their life.

“Dad loved to serve the community and was part of two Roman Catholic religious groups in Norwich, he was an avid musician and he loved to make jokes. He was the chef in the family and a great dad," she said.

Herminio Astorga.

Herminio Astorga. - Credit: Herminio Astorga

“I’m so grateful that we talked about [organ donation] as a family so it was a planned decision and was not a rushed one. We felt so supported by the trust and the ambulance service and everyone has been amazing. We never felt we were alone and we were involved in all aspects of his care."

On Monday, a series of events will begin to mark the week, including landmarks around the city, such as Norwich Cathedral and Norwich Castle, being illuminated.

Deborah Easby, NNUH clinical lead for organ donation, said: "While most people agree that it is important to talk to their family about organ donation, it is less likely that they will have actually had this important conversation.

"Please let your family know your wishes around organ donation. Having these important conversations will make it much easier for families if there comes a time when organ donation is a possibility.”

Dr Deborah Easby is a consultant in intensive care medicine at the Norfolk and Norwich University Ho

Dr Deborah Easby is a consultant in intensive care medicine at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. Picture: Deborah Easby - Credit: Archant

People can find out more and register their decision by visiting NHS Organ Donor Register at www.organdonation.nhs.uk and sharing their decision with family.

Nick and Joanne Hext.

Nick and Joanne Hext. - Credit: The Hext family

'She helped five people'

Nick Hext’s favourite subject of conversation is his wife Joanne – not least because of the enormous impact she has had on five strangers.

While she was alive she had chosen to be an organ donor before the law changed from having to opt in to to opt out.

And in 2018 Mr Hext, from Costessey, was faced with the agonising decision of whether to go ahead with his wife's wishes.

The family, including her three sons, agreed and Mrs Hext was able to help five families having donated her lungs, liver, both kidneys and her heart in April 2018.

Mr Hext, an organ recipient himself, said: "I knew it was important to Jo, but this had to be a family decision. I didn’t want any recriminations further down the line. It is really important that everyone is heard and I wanted to talk to her three sons and her parents.

Joanne Hext, who became an organ donor after her death.

Joanne Hext, who became an organ donor after her death. - Credit: Nick Hext

“It never is as simple as the person having a donor card. It is such an emotive issue and you are being asked to make such important decisions when you are at the very lowest point of your life.”

It was just 10 days after the couple's third wedding anniversary that Mrs Hext mentioned a headache.

In the morning her husband did as he always did – kissed her goodbye, told her he loved her and left for work.

His day came to a sudden stop when he was called by the NNUH and told to come.

His wife had been found collapsed in her car in the park and ride car park. She was rushed to hospital and placed on a ventilator in the intensive care unit.

“They did all they could for her," he said. "The team was superb, the care they gave to both of us was fantastic.”

He has since had a letter from the patient who received his wife's heart. It is a poignant letter describing how her selfless gift gave her a second life – one in which she was able to contemplate marriage.

Mr Hext, who, along with his wife, worked at the hospital, said: “It is a letter I have read many, many times. You cannot find meaning in sudden death, but you can have solace in the knowledge that such a selfless gift means so much to so many people.”

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