Thomas Gardiner was just four years old when his mother died, and since then grief has been his constant companion.
But he takes some comfort.
His mother, Belinda, who died from a brain aneurysm 25 years ago, donated her organs, saving the lives of five people and giving sight to another two.
“In that darkest hour, it is amazing that we could give light,” Mr Gardiner says.
Two people received Belinda’s kidneys, two more people received her liver and another two received her eye tissue.
“Someone was very lucky to receive Mum’s beautiful heart,” Mr Gardiner said.
A six-year-old boy received part of Belinda’s liver, and he has written to the family every year on the anniversary of Belinda’s death.
“He’s doing amazing things with his life — he’s gone on to pursue a great career and start a family,” Mr Gardiner says.
Thomas now writes back, saying he looks on it as a way of communicating with his mother.
“It’s like her spirit is living on,” he said.
The person who received Belinda’s heart died earlier this year but was able to have an extra 25 years of life.
“Knowing that person was able to have that life because of her does help with the grieving process,” Mr Gardiner says.
Belinda is remembered as beautiful, humble soul and a doting mother.
‘I had four small children at the time’
Alice Bakss said her liver transplant last year was a gift for her and her family.
“I will always be wondering what made my life more important than the person who passed away, but that my family gets to experience another day is pretty special,” Ms Bakss said.
The deputy principal from central Queensland had battled ill-health when her youngest daughter was born in 2009.
She had low platelets and an enlarged spleen, and doctors then discovered something was wrong with her liver — cryptogenic hepatitis.
It wasn’t until a visit to a specialist in 2013 that the words “liver transplant” were uttered.
“It was pretty traumatic because I had four small children at the time — the youngest was only three and my eldest were just starting school.
Early last year, the transplant timeline was fast tracked when Ms Bakss’ doctor discovered large aneurysms on the splenic artery.
In May, she was officially on the list and it was another upheaval for the family.
“If you live in Brisbane, it is just a matter of waiting,” she said.
“For us, because we live in central Queensland, I had to relocate to be half an hour from a hospital.”
Ms Bakss moved to live with her sister on the Sunshine Coast, leaving behind her husband and children, who would visit each fortnight.
“We didn’t know how long it would take — it could be the next day or it could be two or three years,” she said.
“Knowing that you might not survive the surgery itself and the last couple of months you’re not with your family, it’s really hard.”
One evening when her family happened to be visiting, she received the phone call.
And on the day of her 39th birthday, Ms Bakss was in an operating theatre.
It was a long road to recovery after several complications, but she has energy levels she never experienced before.
“It’s been incredible. It changes lives,” she said.
A certain type of death
Josephine Reoch is the donations specialist nurse in central Queensland and deals with donor families but also meets with many recipients.
Her role is bittersweet.
“I am so pleased to see people living these great, big lives and honouring their second chance and their donor in everything they do,” Ms Reoch says.
“But death is awful — there’s nothing that can change that, but the death when someone can be an organ donor, it’s still devastating and heartbreaking, but it’s also life-giving.”
There are just under 1,700 people currently on the transplant register in Australia — the majority for kidney transplants — and another 12,000 Australians on dialysis who could benefit from a transplant.
Last year, 548 organ donors provided more than 1,400 transplants.
“To be an organ donor, you have to die in a very specific way and that’s less than 2 per cent of people who die in hospital,” Ms Reoch says.
“Organs are very oxygen dependent, and that’s why the scope of people who can donate is very narrow — so people who die outside of a hospital can’t donate.”
Last year, 1,300 people died in a way where they could be medically suitable for organ donation last year.
Lungs and hearts have four-hour window
For a donor, there is a short window of time from when they are taken off a ventilator to when their organs are transplanted into the recipient.
Lungs and hearts have a four- to-six-hour window, liver and pancreas have up to 12 hours and for kidneys it’s up to 24 hours.
“It’s a complex process to organise to get them where they need to go and then get them into that grateful recipient,” Ms Reoch says.
It is, however, a finely tuned process that includes flying in a specialist team to perform the operation, pathologists, couriers and pilots.
Because of the timeframe, there are limitations as to where recipients can live, and most must relocate to within a few hours from a transplant centre, like Brisbane.
Registration takes a couple of minutes on MyGov or through DonateLife and it’s important to have a conversation with your family, she adds.