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Norfolk wildlife crusader’s life saved by stranger

PUBLISHED: 20:44 30 October 2010 | UPDATED: 10:50 31 October 2010

Brendan Joyce, Norfolk Wildlife Trust director, back at work after a liver transplant; Photo: Bill Smith

Brendan Joyce, Norfolk Wildlife Trust director, back at work after a liver transplant; Photo: Bill Smith

Archant © 2010

For 15 years he has determinedly led the fight to save Norfolk’s wildlife.

But now whether he is tramping around nature reserves, attending conservation meetings or poring over papers relating to some new land acquisition, it is no longer quite business as usual for Brendan Joyce.

His love of Norfolk’s countryside has become even more intense, sunsets appear strangely more striking and his appreciation of the people around him has grown.

And never far from his thoughts is the young father and husband whose organs have saved not only his life but four others, including a child.

The longest-serving director of Norfolk Wildlife Trust said every day he experienced a “jaw-dropping moment” when he contemplated what he had been through since he was diagnosed with primary liver cancer in May last year.

First there were the agonising months on the liver transplant list carrying around two mobile phones so he did not miss the vital call.

Then came the mad dash to Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital which ended as a false alarm with him being sent back home – “feeling like I had been reprieved from a death sentence” – to carry on waiting.

Finally came the midnight call in February which ended in a 12-hour transplant operation, his donor’s liver being split by the surgeon to give the hope of life to a child as well.

After an inevitably slow recovery – “I could not even lift a kettle when I got back home to Hellesdon” – he is now working 50 hours a week at the Trust’s Bewick House headquarters in Norwich and has more energy than before.

Brendan, 53, has been told he has only a 16pc chance of the cancer returning, but confessed: “I am taking nothing for granted. If I live for another 10 years that would be a real success.”

As well as continuing his crusade to save the bittern and swallowtail butterfly, he has now been reinvigorated by a new passion – to support and champion the work of doctors and nurses and to highlight the importance of the donor 
register.

He said: “One in six people die on the liver transplant waiting list. There is a huge shortage of not only livers but all organs, and it is disappointing that despite all the publicity so few people sign up as donors.

“I respect the fact some people may have religious reasons, but a lot of others say they want to be donors but just don’t get around to it – I would urge these to get on and do it.”

He said it must have been a great comfort for the family of his donor –to whom he had written via the hospital – to know his organs had saved five lives.

Brendan, whose successful stewardship of the trust has seen membership grow from 12,000 to 35,000, said that prior to his diagnosis he had not been feeling ill.

He said: “I remember feeling very tired sometimes and people told me I was working too hard. But I just put it down to getting older.”

Brendan said he was being treated for a genetic liver condition, haemochromatosis, and owed his life to an observant nurse who spotted a slight abnormality on one of his regular blood tests.

Even though it still took a number of scans and an exploratory operation to finally diagnose liver cancer, it meant it was discovered early 
enough to give him a chance of a transplant.

He said: “Usually people don’t experience symptoms until it is too late and 95pc of people with primary liver cancer don’t survive.”

Brendan said a lot of people said 
he had nerves of steel because 
his reaction to the diagnosis was simply to go back to work and carry on.

He said: “I was out on the Upton reserve when I got the call to say I was on the waiting list. It was a strange feeling because you have to be in contact at all times of the day and night.”

Brendan confessed he is “in awe” of the hospital staff who helped him during his journey and plans to give two days a month working voluntarily at either Addenbrooke’s or the Norfolk and Norwich.

He feels that one role he could fulfil is to reassure families going through the trauma of waiting for a transplant.

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