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‘If there is anything that is any good of me, don’t throw it in the ground’

When Aisling Davis died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage at the age of 40, her family donated her organs

Barry Davis with Lauren, Grace and Niamh at their home near Athy, Co Kildare. Photograph: Michael Donnelly

Barry Davis and his wife Aisling were relaxing at home on a summer’s evening last July, a day after their middle child’s 12th birthday, when she said she fancied a beer.

He told her that was no problem and to go get herself a can, but that he wouldn’t join her because he was going to be driving his taxi early the next morning.

“We hadn’t been out at the weekend or anything,” he says. “She had one and then said she was getting a terrible headache, ‘I don’t feel great, I’m heading on to bed’.”

Barry was in the habit of sleeping in the spare bedroom in their Co Kildare home when he had to get up early, to avoid waking Aisling and their three children, Lauren (16), Niamh (12) and Grace (7). But he went to check on his wife before going to bed.


“It was about 11.30pm and she said ‘hop into bed with me’.”

She told him not to worry about disturbing her in the morning.

“About five minutes later she woke up with a massive headache: oh my bleeping head, she said – and that was literally it. She was gone before she hit the pillow I think.”

It turned out that Aisling, at the age of 40, had suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage – bleeding on the brain. “The emergency services were there within eight minutes; the guards came with a defibrillator – nothing was spared in trying to save her.”

But within an hour of getting her from Athy to Naas hospital, he was told she had only a 5 per cent chance of survival – “the bleed was that massive”.

The next morning, she was transferred to the intensive care unit in Navan hospital, but, by then, Barry knew there was no hope. He told a doctor she would want to donate her organs and, as next-of-kin, he would be giving permission for that.

“I brought it up first because Aisling had said, ‘if there is anything that is any good of me, don’t throw it in the ground’.”

They had had that conversation a year or two earlier, after watching a girl with cystic fibrosis talk about having a lung transplant on RTÉ's The Late Late Show. Their eldest daughter Lauren had walked in during it and the three of them discussed it. "That was our plan as a family if anything, God forbid, happened to any of us."

The organ donor option had always been ticked on Barry’s driver’s licence – he does a lot of taxi work for the HSE and transports patients for dialysis, so he knows what they go through. But it was not something Aisling had done until after that programme.

When it was confirmed that Aisling had no brain activity, the hospital co-ordinator sat down with family members, including Aisling’s parents and siblings, to say that Barry had raised the intention of organ donation and they could all discuss it now.

Had the conversation

Barry was so glad he had had the conversation with his wife. “It wasn’t my decision – Aisling had made that decision, I was just fulfilling her wishes. When somebody passes away, that is all you can do.”


However, he wanted to make sure Aisling’s mother was in total agreement as he didn’t want her turning to him some months later saying, “you did that . . . ”

“She has said to me since ‘we did that’ – and it’s much easier when it’s ‘we’.”

In such traumatic circumstances, relationships within extended families can become strained, he points out, but not in this case. “We respected one another so much, we could get through it together rather than fall out about it.”

The family said their goodbyes to Aisling on the Thursday afternoon, July 13th, after she was declared clinically dead. However, her body remained on life support, as her organs were not taken until the following day because, Barry says, another donor had become available elsewhere on the Thursday and the transplant teams harvested those organs first.

As Aisling's mother says to me, 'she's out there ticking somewhere' – it's our little joke but it's true

Barry was glad to have the chance to slip in to see Aisling on the Friday morning and say his final goodbyes alone before the transplant teams arrived.

“Every organ has a different team. Each team comes in: the heart was first, the lungs next, the liver, the kidneys – the whole operation takes between eight and 10 hours.”

When they were waiting that night for Aisling’s body to be released, he says the co-ordinator from the office for Organ Donation and Transplantation Ireland (ODTI) told them a boy was getting her heart. “As Aisling’s mother says to me, ‘she’s out there ticking somewhere’ – it’s our little joke but it’s true.”

He knows that has been a great comfort to her.

Barry always felt if just one of Aisling’s organs worked in a recipient, he and his daughters would be happy. Then, just over four weeks after Aisling’s funeral, each of them got a letter from the ODTI.

He recalls how the first page was general thanks for the gift of life, but then the second page outlined where her organs had gone.

“A boy in the mid-teens got her heart; a lady in her early 60s got her liver and a girl in her early 20s got one kidney and a male in his early 30s got the other kidney,” he says.

“I knew how massive that was – it was overwhelming to say the least. It was one of those ‘wow’ moments in your life. You don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. It was just unbelievable and I sat there looking at it, reading it again and again. I think it was probably the seventh time before it really sunk in.”

Lauren, who was reading her letter at the same time, pointed out that the boy who had got the heart was the same age as her. That immediately put it into perspective for him, as he could imagine the joy that would have brought to his family.

“And we had known the night of the transplant, that boy was very poorly,” says Barry, who explains what a lift those letters gave them at a time “when everybody is gone; nobody is calling to the house anymore. The [number of] people who are consoling with you is starting to go to three or four a day, rather than eight. You are thinking to yourself, ‘where do we go from here? Now it’s back to just us’.”

Aisling was “very outgoing, a loving mother and she cared for her elderly neighbours”, says Barry. But he’s “mammy and daddy now” and that’s what gets him out of bed in the morning. “I’m on double time.”

All four of them have their bad days, but one of them has always managed to stay strong to carry the others – sometimes that’s even the youngest, Grace, now aged eight. “We have learnt that this is the burden we live with and we’ll deal with it.”

He knows if he gets a hug from one of his daughters when they first come down in the morning, she is the one he needs to keep an eye on that day.

“I am proud to say my girls come to me. There are not many dads who can say it and I know myself, I wasn’t a dad saying it last year – they went to their mother. That is how life changes.”

He acknowledges he is “so lucky in having two brilliant families behind me” – his own and Aisling’s – and that at least his daughters still have both sets of grandparents.

A great comfort

As members of the organ donor families’ community, they have met not only other people in a similar situation, but also organ recipients, which Barry says has been a great comfort to him and his daughters. “It’s like that dark, miserable day and there’s just one ray of sunshine coming through the clouds. It is that that has got me through.”

He singles out the inspiring couple Martina and Denis Goggin, who set up the Strange Boat Donor Foundation after they had donated the organs of their only son, Éamonn, who was killed in a road accident at the age of 26 in 2006. They invited Barry and his daughters to Galway to visit the "Circle of Life" garden in Salthill, which they established to honour all organ donors and their families.

Speaking to The Irish Times after their first Mother's Day without Aisling, when they were "in the depths of despair" says Barry, he is glad to have the chance to tell their story and to promote organ donation. He and his daughters will be at the Mansion House in Dublin today, Tuesday, March 27th, at the launch of Organ Donor Awareness Week.

“People are ignorant until something happens,” he points out, explaining why he is in favour of the “opt out” system.

“There is so much good to come out of it,” he stresses. “I would have not got those great experiences afterwards that I have had in my time of mourning. Because of these distractions we are always talking about her – she’s not buried in a graveyard as if she had never been here. We are still talking about her as if she had only gone yesterday, not nine months ago. That’s a really good thing.”

He urges families everywhere to have the conversation he and Aisling had about organ donation.

“I will never know, thank God, what it would have been like for me if we hadn’t had that conversation. If anything happened to me in the morning, my girls would do the same. Or if anything, God forbid, happened to my girls, I would do the same thing again. That is how strongly I feel. Since this has happened, it is even more for me.”