Michelle Crawford has more reason than most to smile on Valentine’s Day, as each year marks a milestone for the heart organ recipient.
This year the Crawford family will recall Valentine’s Day 1992, the day their sick little girl underwent a seven hour operation that was to change all their lives.
Some of Michelle’s siblings yesterday attended a special fundraiser for the charity Heartbeat Trust, at which they all had little heart shaped tattoos to raise awareness of heart issues and encourage people to sign the organ donor register.
Michelle can not have tattoos but would “love one” to commemorate Kelly, the young girl’s whose family made the painful decision to donate her organs.
“That decision gave me and others a second chance of life. I am forever indebted to Kelly’s family, there are no words.”
Aged ten, Michelle made headlines as she became the youngest ever patient in Northern Ireland to receive an organ donation.
Her heart problems meant she had, until then, been gravely ill. Unable to run, play, swim or dance, the salsa lover, by her own admission, has not stopped dancing since.
“I make a point since of living life the way it was meant to be lived,” she said.
Ms. Crawford was always ill as a child. The matter came to a head when she was nine years old.
“I was born sick,” she laughs.
“I was born a blue baby. There was no real information at the time but I was finally diagnosed with Hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscles aged nine.”
Michelle’s parents were told the worst news imaginable, she was given six weeks to live.
“My only chance was a heart transplant. Altnagelvin sent me straight to Harefield Hospital for a consultation but my parents were left in no doubt as to how slim my chances were.”
Michelle’s father Noel said: “Last night I was looking back and thinking of the operation and the stay in England. I was overcome with the sense of ‘is this really happening?’ at the time but now it just chokes me up.
There was a large sense of disbelief, that nothing seemed real at the time of the transplant. I definitely wouldn’t want to go through it again, it was a hard time but we came through it. Harefield was just brilliant to us and especially to Michelle though.”
The Crawford family, ever thankful for the second chance they were given, have been raising awareness of the Organ Donor Register since.
“I effectively died and was reborn while at Harefield,” said Michelle.
“It really is a place that is close to my heart, they have given me twenty one years of care and service and I’ll forever be grateful to the staff there.
“By the time of the operation on Valentine’s Day I was at death’s door, my organs were shutting down and I was in a wheelchair, I couldn’t eat and I was suffering heart failure.”
Noel said: “She was so sick. I had to carry her everywhere we went, she only weighed three stone at ten years of age and wasn’t really fit to do anything herself.”
That all changed as soon as she received a new heart.
“There was an immediate change in her, she was up bouncing over the bed, I had never seen her so full of life.”
“A new organ equals new life,” beamed Michelle. “I was always sick then suddenly, I wasn’t. It was great.”
“That didn’t stop her being a little madam at times in Harefield,” laughed her father.
The average lifespan of a patient with a heart transplant, said Michelle is; “Between 10 and 15 years. I’ve had twenty one and I’m still going strong.
“The first heart transplant patient lasted a mere hours and the longest recorded is 30 years, so I’ve a lot to be grateful for. Thanks to the operation at and aftercare provided by Harefield I have a full life ahead of me.
“Yes, I have bad days, everyone has dark grey days but after the operation I knew it was time for living in the now and making the most of enjoying life.
“I know I have to stay healthy due to my suppressed immune system. I can be hospitalised even with a common cold but ‘the rest of my life’ is a lot longer and much more promising thanks to Harefield and my organ donor. “
Following her transplant, Michelle was released from Harefield on Easter Sunday, Though the family were to remain in England for a total of three months.
“The term a ‘new’ lease of life doesn’t cover what I was given,” she said.
Asked about the anniversary and how it makes her feel Michelle replied: “The date always takes the whole family back. It is important to realise the anniversary is about all the family and not just me,” explains Michelle.
“My parents thought they were losing me, my brothers, Glen and Richard, actually lost their parents for three months when they went to hospital in England with me.
“They always knew their sister was ill but were still sheltered from the worst of it. I hadn’t been at school for three years as I was always really, really ill.
“I think that is part of the reason I’ve refused to mature, having missed out on so much of a ‘normal’ childhood,” she laughs.
“At this time of year the overriding emotion however is just ‘phew - I’m here.’”
“With every anniversary I gain more belief.
“I have 21 years behind me now so I am confident in myself but more so in the medical care I am still receiving. Each year reaffirms my faith in the medical profession.
“My life wouldn’t have been possible without the care of the medical team, the support of family and friends but also the people of Derry who donated so kindly to a family fund as my parents had to be away from home.
“I am forever grateful for everything the people of Derry did for me, especially all those strangers who kept me in their prayers.
“The people of Derry raised money for us and I still have bags of cards and well wishes in the attic which were sent to me when I was ill.”
Michelle is a very spiritual person. Her home is decorated with angels and prayers about living life: “What happened to me gives me a sense of something larger.
“A fantastic faith which is very important to me and that has stayed with me ever since.”
Michelle is currently studying a course in complimentary and holistic therapies at the North West College.
“It is vitally important that I keep fit and healthy. That is up to me so I am studying treatments which will compliment the modern western medicine I have become so accustomed to.
“I have really been enjoying the reflexology, meditation and reiki massage (a Japanese technique for stress reduction which also promotes healing.) The hope is to help others who have or are to undergo transplants.
“There still isn’t a lot of support for those who face, what is a major concern and ordeal, no matter what age the patient is.
“I would like to think I can use my experience to help others go through what I did.”
The most important thing stresses Michelle is that people register to leave their organs behind them after they die.
“These can save so many lives.
“I would never have had the life I had but for the brave decision made by Kelly’s family.
“It only takes minutes to register and that is a very small price to pay for saving someone’s live.”
To register on the organ donor list log onto http://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/ or call the NHS Donor Line on 0300 123 23 23.