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‘You’ve got mummy’s lungs’

ABC News logo ABC News 6/11/2016 Lucy Fahey

"It was the hardest letter I have ever written, the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I said, I'm now able to dance, I'm able to walk and talk and breathe at the same time. I was told I wouldn't get a reply and for me that was fine." 

© Getty Images In 1994, 27-year-old West Australian Carolyn Boyd received a life-saving lung transplant after being told she had just hours to live. 

Two years later, she decided to contact her donor's family to let them know what a difference their gift had made.

At the time, organ donor identities were fiercely protected. The Red Cross set up communication between Carolyn and her donor family but did not allow any identifying information in the correspondence.

Any names or addresses were redacted.

"Eventually I received a typed letter from my donor family," Carolyn recalls.

"It said in the letter that they had recently purchased a cherry orchard, that they had livestock who were always having young.

And young was spelt with a capital Y. And I just assumed it was a typo."

The day Carolyn received that reply, an old friend from Canberra had dropped by for a visit. She read over the family's letter and spotted something Carolyn had missed.

"That's a hint. Young is in New South Wales and that's where all the cherry orchards are," Carolyn's friend told her.

After some painstaking detective work — and more letters containing cryptic clues — Carolyn tracked down her donor's family. Soon enough, on the phone from her flat from Perth, Carolyn could hear the voices of Terry and Frances Cannon crackling down the line.

"I think I shook throughout the whole conversation. It was just amazing. Asking questions and finding out," Carolyn says.

Terry and Frances' daughter, Natalie, was 22 when she died of a sudden brain aneurysm. She had two young children and was seven months' pregnant with her third.

Natalie had been at the park with a friend when a sudden headache came on and she collapsed.

Hours later, Natalie was being rushed to a hospital in Canberra. By the time she arrived, a priest had been called to meet the car — Natalie was not going to survive.

Doctors managed to save the baby, who was born nine weeks early. But baby Jayde would never meet her mother.

Natalie was put on life support so the family had time to say their goodbyes and a chance to make the decision that would ultimately save another young life.

"Both Frances and I looked at each other and said, 'We should donate her organs, we've got to get something out of this'," Terry recalls.

Being so young, Natalie had never spoken about organ donation with her family. But her stricken parents looked to Natalie's altruistic nature and made the decision on her behalf.

"She'd have said yes ... she gave everything away, you'd buy her stuff and she'd give it away," Terry says.

Terry and Frances waited for the whole family to arrive at the hospital before signing the papers. Natalie's grandparents, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters all poured in.

"My mother [Natalie's grandmother] was struggling with the concept and I spoke to the specialist and said, 'Look, we need to have a family get-together with you, I want to go through all of this with the family, so I can be assured that I haven't made a silly decision'," Terry says.

"It was unanimous. She was gone and there was nothing else to be done."

Natalie's five-year-old son and her three-year-old daughter said goodbye to their mum.

"We laid them up on their mum's tummy, one at a time, and encouraged them to say goodbye and kiss and cuddle," Terry says.

At a hospital three hours away in Sydney, Carolyn was taking what everyone thought would be her last breaths.

"The last three months [of my illness] were particularly hard," she recalls.

"I was extremely ill, I was on a machine to help me breathe at night, I was on oxygen 24/7 … I was unable to brush my teeth without being rendered breathless."

Carolyn had been told she had two years to live unless she received a lung transplant. She had been born with cystic fibrosis and the disease was gradually but surely claiming her body.

After two long and draining years on the donation waiting list, the doctor's grim prediction was looking an unthinkable reality.

"I was admitted to hospital on the Friday and they said to my mother ... 'If Caz isn't transplanted by Monday this will be it for her, she won't be here," Carolyn says.

"I received my call at 6pm Sunday night.

"You put the ticket in and hope that it's going to happen but until it happens you never know. That's what it was like for me, I won lotto."

Learning about Natalie and her family's loss was difficult for Carolyn. It was hard to reconcile that her incredible luck was built on someone else's grief.

"I was very careful of what I said. To lose anybody at any time is hard enough but to lose a child at that age — she had a family of her own," she says.

"But as the conversation went on it was just like speaking to a friend."

After some months speaking on the phone regularly, Carolyn made the long journey from her home in Perth to the town of Young.

With her mum, Carolyn sat down in the Cannon family home and met Natalie's kin.

"We got greeted with open arms. It was like catching up with friends you hadn't seen in 20 years," Carolyn says.

"We sat down at the table, they told me about her, the quirky things she used to do. I learnt about this person as though she was sitting next to me."

Terry says it was a very emotional time.

"It just confirmed that we'd made the right decision. She's just such a great person. For her to get those lungs was just the greatest thing," he says.

Then Natalie's children came in to meet Carolyn.

"And that to me, it still brings tears to my eyes, it was just I saw these beautiful children and I saw what their mum was missing out on," Carolyn remembers.

"Terry said, 'This is Carolyn' and one of them turned around and said, 'you've got our mummy's lungs' and came straight up to me and put her head on my chest."

Years on, Carolyn is an honorary member of the Cannon family. She was made godmother to Natalie's 'miracle baby' Jayde.

And when Carolyn got married, Terry Cannon walked her down the aisle.

"She rang me up and asked me to give her away at her wedding and I said, 'well that's your dad's job'," Terry says. "

And she said, 'Well, I put that to him and he said without you, without your decision, he wouldn't be able to walk me down the aisle, and he would prefer to walk down the aisle with you."

The lifespan of transplanted lungs is unpredictable.

Carolyn was told that five years would be a good result for her, and 10 was all she could realistically hope for. Natalie's lungs are still going strong 21 years after her operation.

Her last lung function test indicated they were performing well and in no danger of failing any time soon.

Although they live states apart, Carolyn and Terry still talk regularly.

"I remember he rang up on one Thursday night and said, 'What are you doing at home?'," Carolyn says.

"And I said 'Just having a quiet night'. [He said], 'No you're not, get out and dance those lungs off, that's what we gave them to you for'."

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