Michelle has always been a very healthy, active person. Running is her passion and she’s twice competed in the London Marathon. However, after changing to a new, stressful job, she found that while running one of her usual runs, she couldn’t even get to the end of her road.
“Looking back, I wasn’t feeling too brilliant but just put it down to the job. But, as a runner, I know my body really well, so I quickly realised that something was not quite right. I went to my GP who gave me a sort of well-woman’s check-up. He said that he hadn’t seen me for a few years – I must be keeping really healthy.
So, they checked my weight etc. and generally thought I was in really good health. They sent off some bloods and advised me not to run in case it was something serious. When the tests came back they showed excessively high cholesterol. The first thing they thought was that I had heart disease, but the heart specialist said I had the heart of a 21-year-old – nothing wrong there.
It was at that point that they realised it was my liver that wasn’t working properly. After a series of blood tests at Ipswich Hospital, I got a call at work to say my bloods were off the Richter scale and I needed to be in hospital urgently. I half laughed – I was feeling fine, everybody just thought that I had a really good suntan. But I was admitted into Ipswich Hospital and then transferred to Addenbrooke’s.
The team at Addenbrooke’s said that I would eventually need a transplant, but they didn’t really know what was wrong with me. So, I had extensive tests for absolutely everything. They told me I’d had glandular fever a year before – I just thought I’d had the flu – and that can trigger liver issues. Because there was something showing up in my bloods they tested me for leukaemia. And I’m sitting here now thinking ‘at least it wasn’t leukaemia’ and then ‘but what about the liver transplant!’ Eventually, although they are still not 100% sure, they thought it must be PBC (Primary Biliary Cholangitis), where your body and immune system basically turns on itself.
I was in and out of hospital a lot at that time. While they were preparing me for the transplant I was again tested for absolutely everything – I really had the most amazing treatment. Unfortunately, they found little cysts in my ovaries. Although non-malignant, I had to have them removed. My gynaecologist told me afterwards my insides were bright yellow. He even took a photo and joked that I might find myself in a medical journal.
There were still issues before my transplant – my liver was basically shutting down my body. I was malnourished because I didn’t want to eat, and my weight plummeted to under five stone. They told me I had to eat, or I wouldn’t be able to get the transplant. I begged them to let me out of hospital, I said I could be looked after better at home. I was at home for four weeks, but I couldn’t even get up the stairs, my husband had to carry me to bed, so it was pretty traumatic.
Then I got a call to say the liver had been matched. We rushed straight to Addenbrooke’s – my bag was all packed, like having a baby! Right before the surgery, my surgeon, Mr Gibbs, asked what I really, really wanted to achieve after the transplant. I said I’d just love to run again but I can’t see that happening. He said, yeah, we can do that.”
Michelle’s operation was a total success. Surgeons were even able to remove the lobe of the donor liver and transplant it into a newborn baby – Michelle got the rest! Her recovery was swift; she left hospital two weeks later and was in full training within four months. Mr Gibbs had kept his promise.
In August 2015, exactly a year after surgery, Michelle ran for Addenbrooke’s in the Hospital Transplant Games, winning gold in the 100m and 200m races. The following year she added 400m to her repertoire and won three golds and was selected for the World Transplant Games. She competed in Malaga in 2017 and came home with a bronze, two silvers and a gold. She also now sits on the committee for Addenbrooke’s Transplant Sports, which helps athletes get to the games. Michelle cannot praise the wonderful transplant team at Addenbrooke’s enough and continues to be an ambassador for the hospital and the charity, ACT, that supports them.
“I didn’t see having a liver transplant as a death sentence, I saw it as a kick up the backside. It makes you think, wow, what wonderful lives we have! I can’t show it through music like other people do, or write wonderful articles, but maybe through sport I can show people that a woman in her late 50s with a transplant can still compete at a high level.”
“One thing I’ve realised since I’ve been competing in the transplant games is the amount of support I get from Addenbrooke’s compared with other hospitals. I have a transplant coordinator, Tine, who is always there when I need her, at the end of the phone or an email, as are the rest of the team – I have a wonderful support network. But this really isn’t about me competing and showing my medals off, it’s about raising awareness. I want people to know what having a transplant has meant to me. And also, to encourage people to sign up to the donor register. Because there are people dying out there, just waiting for a donor organ.”
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