Joanne Hext, a member of the admin team at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, passed away in 2018 after suffering a bleed on her brain. At the start of Organ Donor Week, her husband Nick, an organ recipient himself, shares his story
Nick Hext’s favourite subject is talking about his wife Joanne – not least because of the enormous impact she has had on five perfect strangers. While she was alive Joanne had chosen to be an organ donor before the law changed from having to opt in to having to opt out. And in 2018 Nick was faced with the agonising decision whether to go ahead with Joanne’s wishes. While that was never in doubt in his mind, he needed to make sure the whole family agreed.
The family, including Joanne’s three sons, did indeed agree and Joanne was able to help five families having donated her lungs, liver, both kidneys and her heart in April 2018.
At the start of Organ Donor Awareness Week, Nick is keen to support the campaign to encourage families and potential donors to talk to each other while they can, to really understand each other’s point of view and to understand why someone wants to be a donor.
The law changed in May 2020 so that patients had to opt out of organ donation rather than opt in, however families and next of kin still have the right to veto organ donation.
Nick, an organ recipient himself, says: ‘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 important that everyone is heard, and I wanted to talk to her three sons and her parents.
‘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.’
Nick, who worked for NNUH for 23 years, met Jo at work when he was a nurse in the fracture clinic and Jo joined the admin team.
‘I was smitten straight away with this lovely, bubbly, blonde woman with her incredible big eyes and whose smile lit up a room – and her laugh, oh!’
Nick eventually chanced his arm and asked Jo out on a date, which she declined, however at a works do they hit it off and ‘from then on we were inseparable,’ says Nick.
Jo proposed to Nick in the grounds of Edinburgh Castle while they were holidaying with friends in Scotland.
Just 10 days after their third anniversary, Jo, who had always kept herself fit and health, mentioned a headache.
In the morning Nick 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 hospital and told to come. Jo, who had worked at the hospital for more than eight years, 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. The team was superb; the care they gave to both of us was fantastic.’
Nick was approached by the Specialist Nurses for Organ Donation asking if organ donation was a consideration and then had the discussions with his and Jo’s family.
He has since had a letter from the patient who received Jo’s heart. It is a poignant letter describing how Jo’s selfless gift gave her a second life – one in which she was able to contemplate marriage.
Her wedding favours included forget-me-not seeds which are the flower for the Organ Donor Network – a support network for families of those who have gone on to donate.
Nick says: ‘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.’
Another Norwich family has urged others to talk about their organ donation wishes following the death of a much-loved husband, father, and community figure.
Herminio Astorga, who was known as Pogs to his family, suffered a cardiac arrest whilst on a video call with friends last September.
The 52-year-old was resuscitated and taken to NNUH where he underwent emergency surgery and was cared for in the Critical Care Complex.
Sadly, 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 NNUH and were grateful for the care and support they received from staff across the Trust and the Specialist Nurses for Organ Donation.
Maida said her husband’s death was very sudden. However, she knew Herminio’s wishes had been to donate his organs, should he ever be in this situation.
‘We had a bypassing conversation about organ donation but did not realise he signed up twice to be on the organ donor register. 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.
‘To know he is still continuing his life in a different person has eased the sadness and the loneliness. I always think about the recipients, and I keep them in my prayers.’
Katrina added that it had made a huge difference to the family to receive a letter from one of the organ recipients and the life-changing impact that Pogs’ 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.
‘I’m so grateful that we talked about it [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 have been amazing. We never felt we were alone, and we were involved in all aspects of his care. They made sure it was mum’s decision and felt comfortable with the decision to donate his organs. It is incredible to see the change it has made.’
Today, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust marks the start of Organ Donor Week 2021 by paying tribute to everyone who has gone on to help save the lives of others following their death. In the last 12 months, 29 families at NNUH have said yes to organ donation with 19 patients going on to donate following their death. This has allowed 56 organs to be donated to those waiting a life-saving transplant. This year NNUH marks the week with a number of events including the lighting up of city landmarks including Norwich Cathedral, Norwich Castle, City Hall, the Norwich Ski Slope as well as the hospital itself. Find out more and register your decision by visiting NHS Organ Donor Register at www.organdonation.nhs.uk and share your decision with your family.