50th anniversary of liver transplants at Addenbrooke's celebrated by patients and pioneering surgeon Sir Roy Calne
Trinity Hall hosts emotional reunion
There was a palpable feeling of excitement as a disparate group of people drifted onto the beautiful manicured lawns of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.
They all had one thing in common – they were all survivors of an operation that 50 years ago was the most risky surgical procedure that could be undertaken.
The 50th anniversary of liver transplants at Addenbrooke’s Hospital was a celebration of life, one tinged with sadness and remembrance for the families of donors that made it all possible. But it was also a homage to Sir Roy Calne, the pioneer of liver transplants – and his team. He not only had the foresight, but the fortitude and the courage of his convictions that liver transplants for those whose lives were on the edge, was the way forward.
It was the May 2, 1968, when Roy carried out the first liver transplant at Addenbrooke’s and the celebration in July brought together a host of people thankful to the hospital and the transplant team for saving their lives.
Debbie Buckles, 53, is one of the oldest survivors and has helped to raise more than £30,000 since her transplant in 1987.
“I was in a coma and the first thing I remember afterwards is Professor Calne sitting by my bedside,” she said.
More than three decades later, having competed in one of the earliest Transplant Games in both tennis and badminton – she didn’t win but, as she says, “I took part” – now raises money for ALTA (Addenbrooke’s Liver Transplant Association) by holding a garden fete in the grounds of her beautiful home in Suffolk and with sponsored walks.
Debbie is a fervent campaigner who may hate the thought of public speaking but nonetheless spoke to those assembled at Trinity Hall. A squeal of delight from Debbie greeted the arrival of 52-year-old Louise Lyng, from King’s Lynn, who received her second liver transplant in 1996. It was heartwarming to see the obvious bond between the two.
Looking at them, they could almost be sisters. And it’s obvious that Addenbrooke’s transplant survivors do see themselves as members of a family.
Here too was ex-fireman John Kitchen, 68, from Royston, who had a transplant seven years ago.
He took early retirement to retrain as an ambulance driver as part of the retrievals team.
“I woke up one day with end stage liver failure,” he remembered. “Now I’m giving back and it’s wonderful.”
Casting around for a new hobby, he spent a fortune on archery equipment. “It’s just lying around at home unused as I’m simply too busy working and fundraising!” he admits.
Dr Graham Alexander, consultant hepatologist at Addenbrooke’s is one of the team responsible for looking after transplant patients. What’s next for transplant technology?
“Undoubtedly it’s the Normothemic machine for perfusion. This allows us to use livers which previously would have had to be discarded. It’s a huge step forward and of course, constant research allows us to drive surgery forward all the time,” he says.
Accompanied by his dad, Andrew Hardwick, 36, from East Riding in Yorkshire, was just three years old when his transplant took place.
Now a lorry driver, married with three children, he is rightly proud of the way in which his parents fought to find him a donor and managed to initiate a nationwide campaign using Esther Rantzen’s That’s Life programme as a springboard.
He too has competed in the Transplant Games in Liverpool where he won gold medals in swimming and running. History hasn’t recorded where he came in ‘welly wanging’ – who knew that was an event – at age 11.
“Having a liver transplant has never stopped me doing anything I wanted to,” he says.
Sir Roy was due to make the headline speech but was admitted to hospital earlier in the week – and “kept in prison” as he put it.
He persuaded his “captors” to let him out and, resplendent in a linen suit, was wheeled onto the lawn at 4pm to resounding applause and endless cups of tea.
Mobbed by his former patients all clamouring for a selfie, there are no words to express the gratitude they feel to him.