It was supposed to be the holiday of a lifetime. Chris Williams, a 42-year-old NHS number cruncher, from Shrewsbury, had flown to Zante, in Greece, with his wife, Lynne, and daughters, Lucy, 15, and Hannah, 11.
His family had saved hard and they were relishing the prospect of time away. “We hadn’t had a holiday like that for a while,” says Chris. “It was a special thing for us to be going away.”
The dream soon turned sour. As Chris and his family flew towards Greece, he developed acute pain in his stomach.
“It was severe pain under the ribs while I was on the flight and I was sick on the flight. The flight girls there had to help me because I couldn’t cope with the pain.”
Chris managed to disembark and offered medical assistance. “They were all for sending me off to a Greek hospital. But I just wanted to enjoy the holiday. I thought it was one of those things, I just wanted to put it behind me.”
Chris was no stranger to illness, having suffered from an autoimmune disorder for 20 years. His condition causes his immune system to mistakenly attack and destroys healthy body tissue. That has led to Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, a disease that damages and blocks bile ducts inside and outside the liver.
Chris adds: “We flew over on the Sunday and on the Monday and Tuesday I was going through spells where it would happen for two or three hours. I would go down to the beach then have to go back to my room, where I’d be doubled up on the bed.”
Chris called the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in Birmingham, which advised him to seek medical help in Zante. He was put on a drip, given steroids and told to return the following day. His condition deteriorated, however, and he was whisked off for an ultrasound scan. The results showed that his bile ducts had severely narrowed. “The message was simple,” says Chris. “I needed to get home, quickly, and get to a hospital.”
The Williams family cut short their two-week trip after seven difficult days and Chris was admitted to the QE. He was put under observation for three days before being given a devastating diagnosis: “The doctors told me that my liver was failing rapidly and that I needed a transplant.
“It’s impossible to describe how you feel when you’re told that. I thought I wouldn’t be around much longer, that I wouldn’t be there for my wife and daughters, that it was all over. But I had massive support from my family. When you’re told something like that, you have no choice but to be positive.”
Chris’s PSC had caused his liver to fail and he was placed on the priority list for a transplant. He was discharged from hospital and told to wait for the call, and have a bag packed.
Six weeks later, the telephone went in the middle of the night and on October 12 Chris underwent a liver transplant. A woman donor had left multiple organs and Chris was a perfect match. The operation went well, despite some initial rejection, and Chris was discharged from hospital on October 22. He was allowed to return to work on January 31 this year.
“The weight dropped off me. I’ve never been a big bloke, but I went down to eight-and-a-half stone. My muscles just wasted away.
“Now when I look back, so much happened and it seems quite surreal. So much has happened in the past year, it doesn’t seem real. The big thing is that I owe my life to the lady who donated her liver – and to her family. I wouldn’t be here without her. I owe it to her, to promote the organ register because she was a multi-organ donor.”
Part of Chris’s rehabilitation has been a programme of exercise. And on Friday – the one-year anniversary of his transplant – he will complete Chris’s Snowdon Challenge, during which he will cycle to, then climb, Snowdon.
“I am marking the anniversary with a 70-miles sponsored cycle ride from my home in Shrewsbury to Mount Snowdon, and then walk to the summit the following day.
“I am raising much needed funds for the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Liver Foundation Trust, which supports the liver unit, with various research and equipment.
“They are currently raising funds for an additional Fibroscan machine, a painless, non invasive alternative to liver biopsy – something I wish had been available when I needed a biopsy because the other one was in use.
“I am also hoping to raise awareness for the Organ Donation Register, for which my family and I owe so much. This time last year there was a real possibility that I was going to leave Lynne and the girls on their own, and it terrified me.
“I hope to not only raise funds for the QE Liver Foundation Trust, but to also raise awareness of the Organ Donor Register.
“I wouldn’t be here today looking after my family without the amazing gift my donor gave to me, and I owe it to her and her family to live life to the full and to do all I can to help others in a similar situation.”
By Andy Richardson