Organ donation: The light within the darkness

Losing a child is any parent's greatest dread. But Sarah Hickman says she found hope in knowing that her daughter gave others the chance to live

Sarah and Steve Hickman were in a hospital waiting room when they decided that the organs of their dying daughter should be used to help others.

It was a moment of clarity at a time of unimaginable heartbreak, and it’s been a small chink of light in the desperate months since the death of Georgi last year at the age of just 24.

Georgi had been on a night out in Southampton on March 31 with friends and her boyfriend Jeeves when an extreme reaction to some food sent her into anaphylactic shock. She collapsed and was rushed to hospital but her brain had been catastrophically starved of oxygen.

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Georgi with boyfriend Jeeves

“When the doctors confirmed that her brain had died and there was nothing else they could do, that’s when they said she was registered as an organ donor,” says Sarah, 52.

“They asked if I was aware of that and I said, ‘No – but it doesn’t surprise me.’ I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t even consider going against what she wanted but after a couple of days it came back to me that we had had a conversation.

“I had dismissed it at the time. I said to her, ‘I don’t know why you’re telling me that because I’m not going to be around when the time comes.’”

Georgi was kept on life support while recipients were found, but on April 6 the machine was turned off and she was allowed to die.

Once you’ve registered, tell your family so that they haven’t got to have that shock

Hospital staff made it clear to her parents that they did not have to go ahead with the organ donation, despite Georgi having registered.

“They said we could contest it and then they added, ‘… but we need these.’ We accepted it straight away,” says Sarah.

Five people benefited from Georgi’s priceless donation, including a teenager and a baby. “I won’t say it was a comfort,” Sarah says. “But it was something nice, because she was working in childcare.”

Georgi had been accepted to study psychology and counselling at Sheffield Hallam University. She was due to start last autumn. Her mother says her choice of subjects summed up her personality. After her death, friends flocked to her to say Georgi was always there for them during tough times.

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Georgi skydiving in Australia while on her travels

She was also someone who was deeply affected by the struggles of homeless people in her home town. During the agonising wait at the hospital, before Georgi’s life support had even been turned off, Jeeves knew exactly what she would choose as a legacy.

“When we knew the inevitable was going to happen, he mentioned The Big Issue,” says Sarah. “I found out after she’d died that she would go around Southampton city centre when she was on a night out, chatting to homeless people.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

“I know now that a few of her friends still do that. But I didn’t know about it at the time and I know the reason she didn’t tell me is because I’d have been a protective mum.”

So Sarah and Jeeves took the decision that funds raised in Georgi’s name would go directly to helping homeless people get their lives back on track.

An event to mark what would have been her 25th birthday last year raised more than £1,700 and a Christmas quiz raised another £1,000. They’re donating the money to The Big Issue Foundation, The Big Issue’s charitable arm, which links vendors with vital support to help them move on in their lives.

Next month, Sarah, Steve, Jeeves and 24 other friends and relatives will take part in The Big London Night Walk, covering 13 miles through the night of Friday, March 2. They’re on track to raise £10,000.

Organ donation saves or extends the life of more than 3,000 people every year

Along with Georgi’s parents, her brother Stephen, sister Alice and half-sister Nina will be doing the walk, decked out in their emblems of sunflowers and pineapples, to help tackle the social issues that obviously had such an effect on Georgi.

“Georgi and I both had an interest in homeless people and it always used to come up at Christmas as that’s when you think about it more,” says Sarah.

“A couple of years ago I said to her that it’s surprising how quickly circumstances can change. Not just becoming homeless but becoming lonely as well. And I always remember her saying, ‘Mum, you’ll never be on your own at Christmas.’ It was a really nice thing for her to say.”

The support for the Big Issue Foundation has raised not only life-changing cash, it’s left Sarah’s friends and family more in tune with the work of The Big Issue.

She says: “People have said, I always wondered what that Big Issue was all about – not even realising that it was for homeless people.

“It’s highlighted it so much to us and other people that it’s not just about handing out food. It’s the things that people don’t think of. To get a job you need an address, for example. It’s something good that’s come out of what’s happened.

Wales is the only part of the UK with a system of presumed consent: everyone over 18 who lives and dies in Wales is included on the donor register, unless they opt out. Around six per cent of people in Wales have opted out

“I think it’ll be a long time before I get any comfort from anything but it is a help in some ways. Most of all because it’s getting all of the people who loved Georgi together. I often think if she could speak to us now she’d say, ‘Why didn’t you do this when I was there? I’d have loved all this!’”

The family is also certain that Georgi’s life-changing organ donations would have pleased her, and Sarah is urging people to have the conversation with their loved ones to make their wishes clear in case they’re ever thrown into the Hickmans’ situation.

Less than a year on from her daughter’s death, Sarah says the memories of that time still don’t feel real.

“It seems like some weird dream,” she says. “Sometimes you have to tell yourself, yes that really did happen. We got used to her not being around, she was in Australia and she also lived with her boyfriend and his family for quite a long time so it’s still very surreal.

After her death, friends flocked to her to say Georgi was always there for them during tough times

“But we were so proud of her for donating her organs. In all that gloom of being at the hospital it was almost like a little chink of light.

“Have the conversation. That’s one of the organ donation slogans. Once you’ve registered, tell your family so that they haven’t got to have that shock. It’s one of the things that I’d tell people when I had to break the news of Georgi’s death to them. I’d say: ‘But… she has donated her organs.’

“You have to clutch at the good things.”