Cole Morton’s new book is based on his imaginative documentary series The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away for Radio 4 that was was awarded Audio Moment of the Year at the Radio Academy’s Arias awards in October 2016. It is the true story of two families about to lose their sons at 16. One does but the other doesn’t because the one who dies donates his heart to the other. Organ donation is close to our hearts…
November 2007. My daughters were 9 and 7 and with their friends Lucia and Alice, they danced at our Chaplaincy In-house Weekend X Factor. That evening a conversation about their friend Lucia’s yellowy eyes led to liver transplant a week later in Birmingham Children’s Hospital. I remember Janice and I getting the news that she as in theatre… crying… praying… and not telling the girls.
Ten years later and Lucia has had two more liver transplants. The third is never more familiar. It is even more fretful. Eighteen months later and Lucia has never been better. She is studying for A levels and training for the Transplant Games in Malaga this summer.
During all of this Lucia has started a campaign to gain publicity organ donors and her Live Loudly Donate Proudly work won her All Ireland Young Volunteer of the Year just last month.
That is a long introduction to a book review. Yet, it is all relevant. When I heard about Cole Moreton’s book on a heart donation, I didn’t need any sales pitch to pre order but I guess my expectations were higher than usual. This was a story I have paddled in. He needed to get it right for all kinds of reasons!
Cole Moreton got to right. Well, at least from my perspective in the shallows. I bought it for my friends who have swam in the depths and they confirmed my initial review - “He got that right. Powerfully!” (David Quinney-Mee)
Cole Moreton has a few things going for his writing. He is a journalist by trade but not just any journalist. In 2016 he was declared Interviewer of the Year at the Press Awards in 2016. As well as writing short articles about the big news on our planet, Cole also writes books. His debut Cry For Home about the Blaskett Islands off the west coast of Ireland was shortlisted for the prestigious John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. As well as all of that Cole is a songwriter, though the Grammy nomination remains elusive.
The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away benefits from all three of these feathers in Moreton’s quill. The story is built on interviews, meticulous interviews. Moreton actually meets Sue Burton, mother of the boy who gave his heart away, on a television show. He goes beyond interviewing those close to family who gives the heart and receives the heart, he talks to doctors, nurses and anybody anywhere near the story.
We then find Moreton adding, to the in-depth research of the interviews, his ability to tell a tale. There are moments in ambulances and even a plane where you can literally feel you are travelling inside. The detail and the drama that the story brings, without contriving it, makes this a riveting read. I believe that Moreton’s songwriting also adds lyrical flourishes time and time again.
So the story is told well. It is not-put-down-able. You feel that you know the people involved. You feel their pain and there is a lot of tear welling sadness in this story. There are hard pages. You share in their ecstasy and there is some of that. You are emotionally connected.
It has to be said at this point that the Burton and McCay families are the great door openers to this. Had this story happened with less warm and engaging people Cole would have found it hard to achieve this wonderful book.
Yet, after 660 words of this review I haven’t got to the crux. How does it deal with organ donation? Well, that is the most triumphant bit. As someone who dipped his toes in the edges of the organ transplant story I found myself finding answers to all the questions I had about Lucia’s story and learning things I had never thought of.
Lucia’s dad said at one point during the ailing of Lucia’s second liver and her third transplant that there should be 1000 words for “waiting”. There is the “wait” for the organ to become available, the “wait” through a long day of surgery, the “wait" as your loved one comes round after surgery and the “wait" to see if the organ functions. There are no doubt hundreds of other “waitings” but I got those four.
Moreton gets those four. The “wait” for the organ is a much more rushed job in Marc and Martin’s story. Yet, Cole gets the most awful bit of being on the need an organ side of the story. You are “waiting”… “waiting” for someone to die. That is a tough one. My wife and I have uttered those words and felt bad but knew that tragically it had to happen. We were “waiting" for it. Cole has us on both ides of the story. A mother losing a son, another mother needing that loss.
Then there is the donor’s story. I have often marvelled at Lucia’s achievements; the night she gave a speech at her Live Loudly Donate Proudly Gala Dinner; the medals from the transplant games; or that recent All Ireland Young Volunteer of the Year award. When a tear slips down my cheek I find myself wondering about the donors of those three livers that have kept her alive. I have this desire to want the donor families to see this. Lucia has written about how she thinks of them when she is swimming for gold.
Marc thought about it when he scored his first goal after the operation but amazingly in The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away the families meet. They share their lives. It is not guaranteed that such connection will work. It is not encouraged. Moreton’s book benefits from the fact that it really works on this occasion. We all benefit from the book.
Where Cole goes the extra mile for me is his inclusion of the nurses, doctors and surgeons. Yes, I have been aware of the incredible care that Lucia has had but Cole took me into the lives and families of those who give their lives tirelessly and full of compassion for their patients. It is quite a testimony. I was ever more thankful for the NHS.
And finally, my greatest lesson from Lucia and particularly her Live Loudly Donate Proudly campaign has been why there are not more organ donors. Cole Moreton himself says that this story has changed this views on organ donation. There is a page in the book where he asks how there can be so few organs donated with so many deaths occurring around us. It is a big question that I hope the story of The Boy Who Gave His Heart Away will cause many more to ask.
And lingering after the last page is done... a thankfulness for another day that life gifts us and an increased compassion for the compassionate humanity around us.