TWENTY-three years ago, one of Britain's first heart transplant patients – a brave young girl named Sabrina Holmes – rode in a Rolls Royce to a Morrisons store to perform the official ribbon cutting ceremony.

Sabrina, then six, had won a competition in The Northern Echo to be a VIP for a day – the main event being the ribbon cutting at the new multi-million pound store at Morton Park in Darlington.

Morrisons staff, in the middle of a refit over the last few months, found the newspaper clippings from the event in 1995.

Customer relations manager Mark Waller said: "I found all these stories about Sabrina and how she had cut the ribbon and met Ken Morrison, and I knew I had to try and track her down to see if she would be able to reopen our store after its refurbishment."

But when he finally traced her mother, Karen Holmes, through Facebook, it was to hear the most tragic news.

Sabrina, from Darlington, and a former Whinfield and Haughton school pupil, died in 1999, just a month away from her 12th birthday, after becoming ill from an infection.

She had a groundbreaking heart transplant aged three, with a heart donated from a boy in Scotland who had been knocked down running towards an ice cream van. That heart gave her almost nine more precious years of life with her family, and enough good health to become a keen gymnast.

But by the age of 11 she began to sicken again and had a small window of time where she could have had a second heart transplant before she became too ill – but there were no hearts available on the register.

Yesterday, her mother Karen, who now lives in Knaresborough, came to the store at 7am to cut the ribbon marking the official reopening of the shop after its multi-million pound refit.

She said: "It's been emotional but actually it's really good to remember Sabrina and talk about her. It was such a long time ago but you never get over it and it is a process of healing to be able to talk about her and remember her with other people.

"I said when she died that she had left a legacy of love and I still stand by that.

"She loved doing the store opening and she always called it 'my Morrisons' because she thought it was her shop. When we came shopping here she would greet the staff she had met that day like they were all her friends. It is so kind of them to arrange this today."

Mr Waller also arranged for a memorial to Sabrina – complete with her favourite creatures, ladybirds – on the wall of the store's cafe, near the children's play area.

This week is transplant week and staff are spending all week trying to raise awareness of organ donation as well as money for the Freeman Hospital charities. Staff dressed as characters from the Greatest Showman yesterday to mark the opening event and transplant week.