May 30, 2024
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By Jade Beecroft

Lee-Anne picks up bits as she takes part in the dragon boat to raise money for an air ambulance

Lee-Anne Schmitz thought her husband, who was renovating the new Lisburn residence with her at the time, had pulled his muscle.

Only a few days after, Greg went into cardiac arrest and died right in front Lee-Anne’s eyes.

Greg was transported to Royal Victoria Hospital. But on February 28th, 2021 the decision was taken to stop his life-support system and donate his organs.

It was not until he turned 42 that he became a father.

Lee-Anne was given his pancreas as well kidneys and the liver. One of these recipients wrote to her thanking for such a generous gift, and also expressing sadness over her own loss.

She is now getting ready to compete in a Dragon boat Race on the Lagan River in Belfast in September.

Lee Anne’s goal is to raise money in support of HEMS (Helicopter Medical Emergency Service) – the Northern Ireland Air ambulance team that initially fought to keep Greg alive.

Lee Anne (43), a patient, said: “All of the medical personnel who assisted Greg were amazing.”

The main valve of the heart, the aortic valve, was torn. “That’s why his back hurt.”

Lee Anne and Greg were working and living together in London at the time they met. They married in July 2017. After having Dylan, 7, and Jasmine, 4, they moved to Lee Anne’s native Northern Ireland.

“We had rented at first, but moved shortly before the Covid locking down,” she says. “It was an idyllic and special summer.

“It’s great to have so much space outside after the busyness of London.

Greg was often taking them on walks, while I worked at home. Dylan would always be running around with so much enthusiasm, while Jasmine sat in a back pack on Greg.

Greg was a trained plumber who started Handy Home Improvements NI in the fall of 2007.

Lee Anne recalls: “He looked fit, healthy and active.” I could not have imagined that anything was wrong.

Greg’s handyman past led to the couple buying a “bit-of-a doerupper” in Lisburn. Once they had the keys in hand, they immediately began renovating the house with help from their family.

Then, when Greg reported a pain on his mid-back between his shoulders, the doctors assumed he pulled a musculature. And a good friend gave them a massager to use at night.

Greg and Lee Anne stripped wallpaper together after work on a Thursday (February 25). Lee Anne sent her husband home before her as she was suffering from back pain.

Lee Anne says that by the time she got home in late evening, Dylan was fast asleep and he had curled up with him.

“I assumed that because he had worked so much, he simply needed a restful night.”

Greg continued to complain of backache the next morning. He was agitated, pacing around the room. He used the massager several times before laying back in bed.

Lee Anne says “I had taken Dylan downstairs for a game.”

“I came up quickly to check on Greg. I laid next to Greg on the floor, kissed him on the cheek, and asked him to relax.”

Lee-Anne tried to get Jasmine out of the house, but heard a “horrible sound”.

“I raced into the bedroom, and there it was — I could clearly see Greg’s death right in front me,” says she.

“I called 999, and I was told to drag her onto the ground and start CPR.

Jasmine reached her hand out and touched the cheek of the man I had been carrying. She said, “Daddy.”

Greg received treatment from HEMS’s paramedics before they took him to the Hospital.

He was able to regain his strength, but damage had been done. Greg had been denied oxygen to his brain for far too long.

Lee Anne, at home on that fateful night, had to explain to Dylan why his dad wouldn’t return.

She tells him, “I said daddy would be going to the heavens.”

Dylan asked him if he would go to heaven with the dead bird. We’d just seen one on our last walk and I had explained what it was about.

It was obvious that he did not understand.

Lee-Anne, who was diagnosed as brain dead on Sunday February 28th, made the courageous choice to harvest his kidneys pancreass and liver for donation. In the following months, she says this gave her some solace as they moved to their new house without their husband.

Greg was found to have suffered an attack of the heart in the weeks or years prior to his demise, yet he had ignored it and carried on. It is common for a torn aortic seal to be caused by an inherent weakness, or genetic predisposition. Lee-Anne got a letter almost exactly two years later, on the same day that she lost her husband. In it was a man thanking Lee for donating his pancreas.

The man said he has a family and three children. Greg had already failed at 3 transplants.

It says in the letter: “I never forget about my donor. I’m so lucky.”

It also gives me a sense of sadness to think about the people he loved.

Lee-Anne was determined to calm his fears and wrote back, “Everything you can say about my husband is good. He’s the sweetest man that you will ever meet, with the gentlest heart. You are so kind to say that he is still in your thoughts and you carry a bit of his memory with you.

“I saved these letters, and I’ll show them to Dylan when they can understand what an incredible gift their dad gave”, she said.

The software won’t ever bring Greg back to life, but I am glad that it stopped another family from suffering.

Lee-Anne along with the team she leads from Diageo Belfast will face off in the Dragon Boat Challenge at River’s Edge on Friday, Sept. 15. They aim to raise a minimum of PS1,500 towards the support work of HEMS.

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