Vicki Denniss and Elena Reed have an incredible bond. Denniss is a donor mum. Her beautiful 23-year-old daughter Jess Mclennan was taken by a dangerous driver. Reed is a recipient mum. Her son Nicholas received a new liver when he was six months old.
Current laws in Australia prevent donor families and recipient families from being put in touch with each other. They’re allowed to exchange letters, so long as they don’t give their identities away.
Denniss has never met the people who received Jess’s organs. Reed has never met the family who donated their child’s liver to Nicholas.
But Denniss, from Victoria, and Reed, from NSW, connected with each other via social media, and have formed a bond that has given both of them a lot of comfort.
“Vicki is amazing,” Reed tells Mamamia. “We’ve built this relationship to somehow give both of us closure. She pretends that Nicholas is the recipient of Jess’s liver, and I pretend that Jess is the donor.
“Jess is now a guardian angel for Nicholas. And any time Nicholas is sick, Jess looks after him.”
Denniss says she feels very protective of Nicholas.
“He has been in my prayers often and I cry when he is sick. I’ve never held him but I do love him.”
It was late one night in June 2016 that Denniss held her daughter Jess’s hand, walking next to her as she was wheeled into theatre.
“I kissed her goodbye at the theatre door as she was taken in for organ donation,” she says. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I cannot explain the sadness and pain I felt in my heart and still do to this day, but in this sadness I knew we could stop this pain for other families.”
A few months later, Denniss received a letter from the woman who had received Jess’s heart.
“I cannot tell you how important that letter was to me,” she says.
Just last week Denniss received a “truly beautiful letter” from the man who had received Jess’s kidney. She is still hoping to hear from the other recipients.
“If you knew what we went through, you would understand how important it is to us,” she says. “’Thank you’ is all some families want. Even if they never write back, they still would have loved your letter.”
Denniss would love to be able to meet the recipients.
“I would love to just give them a hug and tell them about the beautiful young woman, a critical care nurse, who signed to be a donor at 18, how she was kind and always thought about others. I just want them to know who she was.”
As for Reed, she says she started thinking about the donor family as soon as Nicholas had received his liver transplant, in early 2017.
Watch: Sylvia Jeffreys on why we need opt-out organ donation.
“It hit me like a weight,” she says. “I was sitting there crying, thinking that a baby died.”
She wrote the donor family a letter. It took her two weeks to put what she wanted to say into words.
“It took a lot of emotion and a lot of heartache and also heart happiness to write that letter.”
Reed was able to work out who the family were, from the timing of when the liver was donated.
“I just put two and two together,” she says.
She would love to meet them. But because they haven’t replied to her letter, she has no intention of contacting them directly.
“If they wrote back to me and somehow stressed that they wanted to meet, I would go happily,” she explains. “As a parent, you are so grateful to the person who saved the life of your child.
“I go through a whole range of emotions. I still cry every single night. It’s still very hard to process what happened.”
Denniss and Reed would like the laws in Australia to be changed to allow donor and recipient families to meet up, if both of them want it. These meetings are allowed in the US, once certain conditions have been met.
“It should be allowed,” Reed believes, “but the process would need to be monitored.”
For now, they have each other.
“Elena and Nicholas are very important to me,” Denniss says.
“Vicki is the most beautiful person,” Reed adds. “I want her as part of my life.”
This week is DonateLife awareness week. Did you know only one in three Australians have joined the Australian Organ Donor, even though 81-per-cent believe registration of donation decisions is important? You can find out more about DonateLife here.