mention liver disease and most people’s first thought will be that the person suffering has a problem with alcohol, and the irony is not lost on Scottish Borders councillor David Raw, who despite his temperance family background had a liver transplant in June this year after being diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
As the council’s portfolio holder for social services David, who represents East Berwickshire, has seen the devastating social consequences of problem drinking, but after his experience in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary’s transplant unit he his more determined than ever to do everything he can to reverse the region’s drinking culture, and at one of the first council meetings he has attended since his transplant he warned last week that unless changes are made “the Borders are heading for a horrible future time bomb”.
Now on the road to recovery David has two goals - to reduce the number of people adversely affected by alcohol and to increase the number of people registering as donors.
Alcohol was not the cause of David’s liver disease but he saw enough when he was in hospital to convince him that reducing the price per unit of alcohol as proposed by the Scottish Government, would be a step in the right direction.
“It’s people going to the supermarket and buying huge containers of alcohol,” said David.“There are nice, decent people, people you wouldn’t expect, battling with alcohol.”
Because people are drinking more, more people are in need of liver transplants, but fewer livers are in good enough condition to be used for a transplant.
And that brings him on to his second goal - educating people about the need to register on-line with the NHS as a donor.
Carrying a donor card is not enough as your relatives still have to give their consent and if you really want to be a donor then you need to register on the NHS website, which only takes a few seconds. That means that relatives don’t have to make the final decision and up to 10 people could benefit from one person registering as a donor.
One in three people waiting for a new liver die before a suitable one becomes available.
Both David and his wife Sue are acutely aware that for him to have undergone a successful transplant there is another family grieving for the loss of a loved one.
“We will never know who gave David his liver but it has transformed our, and our family’s lives,” said Sue.
“Thanks to that family’s generosity in their immediate grief it has meant we have been able to have this opportunity and I just hope that people will think about it and realise it’s something that you can do. You can’t say what a difference it will make unless you go through it.”
The transplant team act as co-ordinators between the donor family and the recipient patient and six months after the operation, if they wish to do so the donor family can write to the person receiving the organ and the recipient can write back via the team. David is hoping for his letter from the donor family around Christmas time.
And being able to look forward to Christmas this year is something neither David nor his family is taking for granted.
After going for a medical check up around 30 months ago, they found a “blip”, suggested he went to see his GP, who referred him to the hospital where it was diagnosed that he was suffering from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
At first it was thought it could be controlled by diet and exercise but when David’s ankles swelled up, his stomach filled with fluid and he started bleeding internally it became clear that he would need a transplant.
And things got steadily worse when the toxins his liver couldn’t remove from his body started affecting his brain and he was diagnosed with encephalopathy, a brain disese that causes confusion and also led to him having black-outs and he would go into a coma.
Although he tried to continue with his council duties David was so tired that after council meetings he would have to stop and sleep on his way home. It soon became clear he couldn’t continue, and he resigned the social work portfolio, and the council organised transport for him to attend council meetings at headquarters.
As well as the support from the other councillors, David’s fellow Scottish Liberal Democrat Party members including Michael Moore, Jim Hume, Jeremy Purvis and Euan Robson didn’t forget about him either.
He very much appreciated the regular phone calls from Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore, who despite his busy schedule and heavy political workload would ring David frequently to see how he was getting on.
Unbeknown to either of them at the time Michael Moore rang David on the day of his operation.
It had been a normal day for David, his daughter had visited him and taken him out to Waterstone’s for more books (he is an avid reader) and because David had other visitors his wife Sue and taken the opportunity to visit her parents in Cumbria. However, at 9pm that night she got a phone call from the hospital to say that they had a suitable liver, it was in good condition and the operation would be going ahead in two hours time.
Neither Sue nor the rest of the family had time to get to the hospital before David went into the operating theatre but David said: “I was remarkably calm and rang everyone to say goodbye.”
Nine and a half hours later David was in intensive care and when Sue visited him the following afternoone and got the thumbs-up from him, she knew he would be OK.
David had waited 14 months for the transplant, and had two false alarms along the way when livers became available but then when analysed they were no good. In November he had an emergency hernia operation which he had a 50-50 chance of surviving but without it he had no chance of surviving, and in May this year he was so poorly he had to be taken into hospital where remained until the operation.
Prior to that he had been in and out of hospital about 20 times and has huge respect for the ambulance staff based at the Chirnside station who were often called on to take him up to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
Sue said: “We knew his condition was bad and transplants weren’t risk free - many things can go wrong - but we also knew he was in a very critical condition.
Following his successful transplant David made a good recovery and within five or six days he was back on the main ward and home within a fortnight.
“The thing that’s so great is that I’ve got my brain back,” said David.
“Liver disease is absolutely horrible, it destroys your health, destroys your relationships and transplant is a wonderful thing, the skill of the surgeons is wonderful.”
David’s favourite nurse in the transplant unit was Coldstream girl Amy Turnbull. “She used to bring in pictures of the Borders for me. She would come and see me after she finished her shift and just sit and chat, she was absolutely super. She was off when I had the transplant but when she got back she came to find me and gave me the biggest hug.
“Nurses like Amy have to support you through the disappointments of false alarms and the emotional support they give you is tremendous. Every time I was in hospital and discharged she would say ‘when you come in next time it will be for the transplant’ but then I’d go back and still didn’t have the transplant - it’s an emotional rollercoaster and the staff in the unit are there for you.”
When David first got home to Cockburnspath he had to go back weekly, now it’s three weekly and he had to take lots of tablets at first and will be on immuno-suppressants for the rest of his life. And at home its his nurse carer Mary Mitchell who keeps David in order and very grateful he is too.
“This village is like having a warm blacket around you, I’ve had so much support from neighbours, people in the shop, the garage, everywhere. There was one night in February when I needed to go to hospital but the ambulance couldn’t get through because of the snow and four teenagers from the village helped carry me to the ambulance. I will never forget the people of Cockburnsapth for what they have done for me.”
Nor will he forget how the Red Cross buddy line helped him and has organised a fund raiser in the village hall on Saturday, September 24, 2-4pm with all proceeds going to the buddy line.
While waiting for a transplant David was assigned a buddy who had already undergone a transplant who listened, explained, and gave David moral and emotional support.
“I want to raise money for the buddy scheme and in time I would like to become a buddy myself.
“My admiration for the heatlh service is 100 percent - its the crown jewels of this country and if anyone was to mess about with it ....”