The bond between Karen Piotr and Pete McKee was forged after dying Mark Piotr, 49, signed away his heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas and eyes to nine desperate people
They chat happily together as any good friends would. Smiling, easy in each other’s company. Like old school chums.
Yet the bond between Karen Piotr and Pete McKee was forged only last July – by a shattering tragedy just two months beforehand and a life-saving snap decision.
Artist Pete is only here today because of the death of Karen’s husband Mark.
And because the heartbroken widow acted so quickly to make sure the man she had loved for 31 years left the legacy he wanted – that others might live because he had died.
Pete, 52, is one of nine people who share that dying gift of organ donation . He has 49-year-old Mark’s liver inside him.
And he is so glad grieving Karen decided to trace the man whose life her husband had saved, against all the transplant rules.
And Karen adds: “I will always remember the moment we met in a hospital room. I walked in and Pete was looking out of the window. Turning around, he gave me a massive hug and said, ‘Thank you.’
“I knew instantly everything would be OK and we talked for hours. It’s a good feeling to know Mark has helped so many people like Pete.”
Now both are backing the Sunday Mirror’s campaign to get everyone to urge their MPs to push through a law this Friday which would make every citizen a potential donor unless otherwise stated.
Usually, the families of donors and organ recipients are obliged to correspond anonymously for around two years before any meeting likely to be highly emotional.
But a series of bizarre coincidences led Karen, 49, to Pete within just 10 WEEKS of Mark’s death – as if it was meant to be. The trail began while Karen was giving a talk to a Women’s Institute about organ donation.
She says: “I’d spoken about a beautiful, handwritten anonymous letter I’d had from the man who had Mark’s liver. Then a lady said she’d read about a Sheffield man who received a liver around the time Mark died in May. I read it and, at the end, he said he hoped one day to thank the donor family for giving him the chance of life.”
A week later, the same man – Pete – appeared on local TV news, talking about how his transplant left him feeling “absolutely fantastic”.
Curious, Karen searched online and found a blog about Pete’s artwork, including a sample of his handwriting.
It was a perfect match to the poignant letter she had received.
She says: “Biting the bullet, I emailed him at the address on his site, anonymously to adhere to the transplant rules.”
The moment he read it, Pete knew it was from his donor’s wife. “My jaw just dropped,” he said.
By mid-July the two were in touch, with their transplant co-ordinators soon permitting them to speak directly.
They nervously arranged their first meeting at a hospital in December – on the way there, each reliving the grief and joy that was to bring them together.
College administrator Karen tells how Mark had begun to have severe migraines. One night in May he began vomiting. Karen called 999 and he ended up in Leeds General Infirmary in a coma with a brain bleed.
Surgery failed to improve his condition.
Karen says: “His chest was going up and down like he was breathing – but it was a machine doing everything for him.”
Next day a doctor gravely told her: “We’re going to turn the machine off. He’s not doing anything for himself.”
Both Karen and Mark had signed up as organ donors – and her brave response was immediate.
“I told the doctor, ‘We are both donors. do it and do it now. Whatever you need, he’d want you to take it.’ I thought about all the people who were going to get that phone call, saying, ‘We’ve got a match’. It stirred up very powerful emotions.”
Meanwhile in Sheffield, Pete was in despair. He had a rare inherited condition, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which can cause lung and liver problems. It led to cirrhosis.
And in 2014, he had been told he would eventually need a transplant.
Married to Jane, 56, with a son and two stepsons, he changed his lifestyle, eating healthily and becoming teetotal.
But within a year, his condition rapidly deteriorated, and he developed encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by toxins in the blood.
Told he was on the transplant list last March, Pete had one false alarm. Then he got a call about another matching donor and had his op on May 6.
He says: “I felt guilt, knowing I was benefiting from a tragedy. I’m on the donor register myself.”
But Pete was instantly lifted by the transplant. “After surgery, my family were amazed at the difference in my eyes. The light had come back on. I felt like a million dollars.”
He wrote anonymously to his donor’s next of kin four weeks later.
He says: “I didn’t know who I was writing to. I wanted to express my joy, but understand their grief, too.”
Pete and Karen’s first meeting was at Leeds General Infirmary on December 5.
Karen says: “It was like meeting up with an old school friend. It all felt normal till I went to the ward, and the nurse said, ‘He’s in there.’ The door was open, and I froze. I thought, ‘I’m about to meet a man who’s alive because of my husband’s liver.’ Then I twisted my wedding ring and thought, ‘Why am I being so silly? and walked in…”
Mark says: “It was very nerve-racking. We gave each other a big hug. Now we’ve seen each other a couple of times and are happy to keep in touch regularly.”
And Karen, of Bradford, adds: “Pete gave me a print of the first painting he did after the transplant. It’s a beautiful gift.”
For Karen, knowing Mark lives on in other people like Pete is a huge comfort. Mark’s heart went to a teenage boy. A kidney went to a man, 29, who has written anonymously to Karen.
Mark’s other kidney and pancreas went to a man in his 50s and his eyes were used to help four different people.
Karen says the Mirror’s Change the Law For Life Campaign is vital. She says: “Being on the organ donor register is fantastic, but if your next of kin don’t know your wishes, currently they can say no. So tell them what you want.
“I’m also backing the Share Your Wishes campaign, urging people to talk about it. And Pete’s on the same page.
“It’s a great comfort to me to know Mark’s helped all these people and I would love to meet the others one day.”