Lancashire mum and Leyland councillor Claire Hamilton was just one week away from death after suddenly suffering liver failure. She tells AASMA DAY how she had her life saved by a liver transplant after being struck by a mystery virus.
Call it divine intervention but it was while she was in church on Christmas Day that Claire Hamilton received the first indication something was wrong with her health.
Claire’s sister Lisa turned to her and exclaimed: “The whites of your eyes are all yellow!”
Claire, 33, who lives in Leyland, near Preston, recalls: “I didn’t really think anything of my sister’s words as I didn’t feel unwell in any way. I thought it was just the light reflecting off the stained glass windows that was making my eyes appear yellow.”
Claire, councillor for Leyland Central, was at the Christmas Day church service at Leyland Methodist Church and was helping Rev Phil Gough cook Christmas dinner at church which was attended by about 36 people.
Claire says: “I was back and forth between the church service and looking after the roast potatoes and vegetables.
“After the service, we served up Christmas dinner but all of a sudden, I didn’t feel hungry.
“I put it down to the fact that after making Christmas dinner, I was sick of the sight of it and just didn’t fancy it.”
Claire, who has a four-year-old daughter Alyssa, went back home to open presents and remembers feeling exhausted and wanting to go to bed.
She explains: “I felt weary and a bit achy, but I thought that was down to lifting trays in and out of the oven.”
On Boxing Day, Claire felt unwell so spent the day in bed. She noticed her skin was off colour and peaky and thought she was a run down and a bit unwell.
When Claire felt no better on December 28, she called her GP practice Sandy Lane Surgery for an emergency appointment.
Claire says that as soon as she walked into her appointment, Dr Amrit Ryatt instantly knew something was seriously wrong.
Claire says: “She could see I was yellow and told me I needed to get to Chorley Hospital for urgent blood tests and she would ring ahead to let them know I was coming.
“It was a good job my doctor was really on the ball.”
Claire went for her blood tests, returned home and later received a telephone call from her GP telling her to go back into Chorley Hospital.
Claire remembers: “The doctor told me the blood tests had ruled certain things out and she had been in talks with the hospital and that if I went back in, they should be able to resolve it.
“In my head, I thought I had a bit of an infection and just needed some antibiotics.
“I felt a huge sense of relief.”
When Claire returned to hospital, a consultant told her as her blood count was so high, they wanted to keep her in overnight and a specialist would see her the next morning.
The following day, Claire had a scan and the specialist told her it showed some damage to her liver but they couldn’t be sure without a biopsy.
Doctors rang St James’s Hospital in Leeds which specialises in liver treatment for advice and to Claire’s alarm, she was told she needed transferring there immediately.
At Leeds, she was put on a vitamin e drip, had more blood tests and underwent a biopsy.
Claire says: “The biopsy was horrendous as they go in through a large vein in the neck and take snippets of your liver and you can hear them doing it.
“I also had to have blood platelets put into me and have more blood tests. My arms were bruised and I felt like a pin cushion.”
The top consultant came to see Claire and told her the biopsy had revealed liver damage, but with all the tests they had done, they could not determine what had caused it.
Claire recalls: “They had ruled out everything they would normally test for such as alcohol and drugs and asked me if I had been in contact with any rare animals.
“They kept asking if I’d been abroad to any exotic places but I hadn’t.
“Doctors told me they weren’t sure what had damaged my liver but that it was possible I had picked up a rare virus which only happens in a handful of cases each year.
“Once this virus is in your body, it just attacks your liver.
“The doctors told me it could all have happened in the space of a week.
“On Christmas Eve I was peeling spuds for church and felt normal. Three days later, I had turned yellow.
“I was also retaining water and looked like I had a pregnant woman’s belly and was waddling everywhere.”
Medics told Claire they could either put her on the waiting list for a liver transplant or wait and see if her bloods picked up indicating her liver was repairing itself.
Terrified at the prospect of a transplant, Claire told them she wanted to wait.
Claire explains: “I was not in pain and at that point, it was only the water retention that was uncomfortable.”
Specialists were looking for Claire’s blood counts to decrease and for the jaundice to improve as an indication her liver was starting to repair.
They also made Claire do dot-to-dot puzzles and timed her and tested her brain frequency waves.
Claire says: “The first time they made me do a dot-to-dot puzzle, I did it in 27 seconds, By the time they put me on the transplant waiting list, it was taking me more than 40 seconds.
“I began getting more sleepy and doctors were discussing putting me into an induced coma in intensive care as they were worried about me not being able to breathe for myself and further decline causing brain damage.
“It all became extremely frightening.
“My sister told me I kept calling her by my daughter’s name.
“Apparently, there was a metal table in the room but I thought it was made of glass. My sister didn’t think this was a big deal but the doctors did as they said it was a sign of my growing confusion.
“They were looking for changes in my behaviour and were increasingly worried about my alertness.
“They realised I urgently needed a liver transplant.”
Claire was put on the urgent waiting list for a liver transplant.
Days later, doctors told her they may have found a possible liver and Claire might be having a transplant the following morning.
Visibly shaking and overcome with tears at the memory, Claire recalls: “I felt really frightened and began worrying about any complications and thinking about what would happen to my daughter.
“When you’re going through it all, you don’t think about your own mortality as you just hope everything will be all right.
“It was only afterwards that I realised how close to death I came.”
Claire mentally prepared herself for the liver transplant, but hours later, doctors told her the liver was unsuitable as it was 80 per cent fatty so she was put back on the waiting list.
A few other potential livers turned out to be unsuitable for Claire and doctors feared they might not find a new organ in time.
Claire says: “Doctors were considering testing my sister to see if they could use part of her liver to re-build me a liver as they were getting so concerned they might not find a match in time.
“They reckon I only had a week left.
“My sister agreed to do this - but before they began the testing, a suitable liver was found.”
Claire’s liver transplant went ahead in mid January and the surgery took around nine hours.
Claire says: “The surgeon later told me that as soon as they put the new liver in, they could tell my body was happy with it and that it was a good match.
“Some people’s bodies reject a new liver straight away and the first 24 hours are crucial.
I remember coming round in intensive care with lots of tubes surrounding me feeling a sense of relief.
“One of the doctors came to see me and told me I was very lucky.
“He told me about a woman in her 40s who had been waiting for a transplant who had died waiting and how the liver she desperately needed had come in a few days after her death.
“The reality of how close I came to death hit home and I realised that could have been me.
“I kept thinking about my daughter and the upset and disruption it would have caused in her life to grow up without a mother.
“Alyssa was unaware of what was happening as she is very young. I didn’t want her to visit me in hospital as I thought it would be too upsetting for her.
“My parents and family looked after her and she was surrounded by people who loved her and was taken on days out so she did not really understand what was happening.” After just six days in hospital, Claire returned home. She says: “Every day, I felt stronger. It was incredible.
“All the staff at Leeds were fantastic. You grow such a bond with them as it is such an intense period. In a way, I felt sad to say goodbye.”
Claire is having weekly check-ups at St James’s Hospital and doctors are happy with how everything is going.
Claire says: “I will have to take anti- rejection medication for the rest of my life and have a large scar, but that is a small price to pay to still be alive.
“I am incredibly lucky and am so thankful to the person who donated and their family.
“I would not be alive if it wasn’t for the donor.”
Claire says her near death experience has changed her and made her realise what is important.
She explains: “Things that were consuming me before Christmas don’t seem significant any more.
“What happened to me is still a shock, but I am keen to get back to enjoying life.
“My sister Lisa was wonderful and was by my side throughout and stayed at various hotels in Leeds so she could be with me at hospital.
“I also want to thank members of Leyland Methodist Church who kept me in their prayers throughout my ordeal. They prayed for my liver to repair itself and when it didn’t, they prayed I would receive a transplant soon.
“I have also been overwhelmed by the number of cards and letters I received both in hospital and since my return home.
“I want to do all I can to highlight awareness of organ donation. All my family have signed up as organ donors - even my grandad who will turn 80 next month!
“Staff at Leeds hospital told me when footballer George Best had his second liver transplant, it impacted on the amount of people who donated as they thought their organs might just go to people who had abused their bodies with alcohol and drugs. They even had cases where people ticked the box to say they were happy to donate everything except their liver.
“But cases like mine show liver failure can just suddenly happen to people through no fault of their own.”
l To find out more about organ donation, visit: www.organdonation.nhs.uk or call: 0300 123 23 23.