Touched by an angel, Gemma makes her granddad proud
WHEN Gemma Hamelink learned she would need a liver transplant, her elderly grandfather-in-law was inspired to save the lives of strangers and decide to donate his organs when he died.
Rodney Webb, a much-loved icon in the Sarina area, spoke to his wife about his choice just weeks before he tripped and suffered irreversible head trauma.
At 81 years old, Rodney's life support was turned off and his liver was given to a stranger.
"I'm incredibly proud of him - he was a beautiful man," Gemma said of Queensland's oldest organ donor."
"It's nice to know that his legacy is living on through someone else and giving someone else a few years of life.
About 10 weeks after Rodney died, Gemma was in hospital undergoing her own transplant.
"It was weird how things worked out - I'd only just been listed on the transplant list a few weeks before and within that time he became a donor," the 31-year-old council worker said.
Gemma was diagnosed with two auto-immune diseases and cirrhosis of the liver in 2011.
Her health was quite stable until 2015 when one of the diseases started blocking her bile ducts.
Antibiotics staved off the trauma for a while but eventually she was being hospitalised every month or so.
In February of 2016, she was added to the transplant list and by March last year she and her family were living in Brisbane, waiting for an organ to become available.
"It was about 10 weeks before I got the call," the mother of two said.
"They told us when I first got sick that the only treatment was to have a liver transplant but it could be 10 or 20 years until that happened.
"My old liver lasted 11 years.
"I tried to be really strong and just decided to get on with life."
More than a year has passed since Gemma's operation.
She, husband Simon and children Oliver and Briella are back in Mackay where Gemma hopes to spend the rest of her life.
Some donor livers will last 20 or so years but Gemma is determined to ensure hers lasts a lifetime.
"I know there's a chance I will need another one in the future," she said.
"I am on anti-rejection medications and because of this there is a risk I will get infections or viruses so I'm extra clean now and I try to keep healthy.
"I also take steroids to keep the auto-immune inflammations at bay."
In Australia, organ donation can be done via live donors or deceased donors.
Live donors allow a kidney or a lobe of their liver to be transplanted into another person. They go through a series of rigorous health and psychological tests before the surgery takes place.
Deceased donor transplants rely on the family of potential donors approving the surgery after their loved one is declared brain dead but their body remains on life support.
Organs can also be retrieved from patients with terminal heart or lung failure, or those who have had a very severe spinal injury meaning they cannot breathe unassisted.
One deceased donor may help improve the lives of 10 people. Surgeons can transplant hearts, lungs, liver, kidneys and corneas. Tissue can be used for a range of medical purposes.
Gemma is determined to use her experience to save other people's livers.
As a community champion for Donate Life she campaigns to have others join the Organ Donation Register.
In August she organised for Mackay Regional Council to turn the city's fountain purple and she encourages her friends and family to speak to their families about their decision to donate.
"If they do register they will be in the position to potentially do something wonderful - to change someone's life," she said.
Gemma said she often thought about the person whose death saved her life.
"It is a strange thing to think that at the same time you are being given life, someone's family is going through unbelievable pain, this huge tragedy.
"There is a lot of mental anguish.
"It comes and goes - on different anniversaries and especially at Christmas because someone is living without someone they love.
"But because of their gift I get to be with my family and my kids for another year."
There are strict privacy rules surrounding organ donations.
Recipients can request contact with the donor family but often the relatives of donors do not want to meet them.
"I had the opportunity to write to them - I wanted to let them know how grateful I am to be a wife, a mother and to return to the life I have here.
"I want them to know that I often think of them and that there is a guilt and there is also pride that I get carry on their loved one's legacy.
"The compassion I have for them is huge but it's a funny thing not knowing who they are."
To become an organ donor visit register.donatelife.gov.au
To take part in the Australian Transplant Games or go along to watch visit australiantransplantgames.com