A North-East family is enjoying an extra-special summer holiday after the news they dreamed of – a successful kidney transplant for their little girl – finally became a reality. PETER BARRON reports

POPPY Lancaster bursts through the caravan door, chasing twin sister, Violet, and giggling with excitement.

“She never stops from the moment she wakes up in the morning,” says proud dad, Gavin, as he watches the five-year-olds playing in the seaside sunshine.

“She’s just got so much energy – it’s incredible to see,” he says, unable to stop the tears welling up in his eyes.

The Lancaster family are enjoying a summer break at their static caravan at Crimdon Dene, a few miles up the road from their home in Hartlepool. They’ve named the caravan ‘Poppy’s Place’ – and they’re having their best holiday ever.

The Northern Echo: The Lancasters are enjoying a family summer holiday at their static caravan in Crimdon DeneThe Lancasters are enjoying a family summer holiday at their static caravan in Crimdon Dene (Image: Peter Barron)

The last time I met Poppy, it was just before Christmas. She was curled up on the settee at home, as Gavin and his wife, Becky, made a New Year wish: that she would finally have a successful kidney transplant to enable her to have a normal life.

Poppy was diagnosed with kidney failure in May 2019, leading to reliance on home dialysis until she had her first kidney transplant on New Year’s Day, 2021. Sadly, the family’s elation turned to despair when the transplant failed within days, and the wait for a breakthrough began all over again.

It came just after 7am on May 3 this year when Becky got a call from the Royal Victoria Infirmary, in Newcastle, saying: “You need to get Poppy here as quickly as possible – we’ve got a potentially stable kidney for her.”

By then, her kidney function was down to just seven per cent and she was on dialysis at home for 10 hours a day, six days a week.

Gavin, who juggles being a children’s entertainer with a part-time job in property management, was in Billingham when Becky called him. “I was under a combi boiler at the time,” he recalls. "My boss just said ‘go and do what you’ve got to do’ – I stopped what I was doing and ran!”

Having taken Violet and older brother, Higham, to a breakfast club at Stranton Primary School, in Hartlepool, Gavin drove Poppy and Becky to the hospital, so preparations for the transplant could begin.

Poppy went down for five hours of surgery at lunchtime on May 4, and it went so well that Gavin was able to have a brief video call with his daughter at 7pm that evening.

At 7.50am the next morning, Gavin, Violet and Higham received another video call from Poppy. She was sitting up in her bed in the intensive care unit, full of beans, and blowing raspberries.

The operation had gone “unbelievably well” and this time there were no issues. That evening – the eve of King Charles’ coronation – Gavin was able to visit Poppy. “She was wearing a gold crown the nurses had made her and she was ruling the roost," he laughs.

She’d named her new kidney ‘George’ – not after the future King but, more likely, one of her favourite cartoon characters, a monkey called Curious George.

“I call her my little monkey, so that’s my theory for George being the kidney’s name,” suggests Gavin.

Poppy was allowed home on May 16 in a 17th birthday surprise for her big sister, Gabrielle. Then, on July 3, came the biggest milestone when she was allowed to go back to the school.

“That was officially the point where it was safe for her to interact with other people again, instead of being wrapped up in cotton wool. Up to then, it’s too big a risk, but going back to school meant the transplant had been successful,” explains Gavin.

“It’s the first time the consultant has sent a kidney transplant patient home after just 12 days. She’s rewritten the rule book every day since she was first diagnosed – everyone’s constantly amazed by her.”

There is, of course, sadness behind every organ transplant, and the family have no way of knowing where the donated kidney came from.

“The likelihood is that it's from someone who’s no longer with us, but we’ll be forever grateful to that family, wherever they are, because they’ve changed our lives,” says Gavin, who's an ambassador for NHS organ donation.

Under a change in the law, in May 2020, adults are considered to have agreed to become an organ donor when they die, if they haven’t opted out, or are not in an excluded group. However, people can also agree to become donors while they are still alive, with about a third of all kidney donations in the UK now coming from living donors.

“The team who have looked after Poppy are just amazing, and we’ll never be able to thank them enough. In return, I’ll never stop doing work for kidney research, and NHS Organ Donation, because it’s so important. “

One day, Poppy will need another transplant – donated kidneys don’t last for ever – but, for now, the family are enjoying the freedom of her not having to be hooked up to a dialysis machine.

“It’s so nice not to have to worry about all that – not hearing the machine bleeping in the night,” says Gavin.

The first year remains crucial. Poppy is still on medication, though it will reduce over time. With once-a-week check-ups still needed at the hospital, she can't go abroad.

Instead, the family will spend most of the summer at Poppy’s Place – named in her honour when Gavin and Becky bought it as a "sanctuary" in January 2020.

“We come whenever we can, and this time it’s more special than ever. We can see Poppy thriving – growing and putting on weight – and she’s got so much energy. I could just sit and watch the kids running around all day,” says Gavin.

For Becky, who’s been a full-time carer, seeing Poppy blossoming, is a “massive relief”. “You don’t realise how bad things had become until it’s all come good again. It means the world,” she adds.

When Becky and Gavin married, on Valentine’s Day in 2011, she walked down the aisle to an Eric Clapton song, called Change The World. Gavin’s retro cassette player has been playing it a lot just lately, as he cooks hot dogs on the decking outside Poppy's Place.

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Someone the family will never know has changed their world for the better.

“The song made the hairs stand up on my neck the first time I heard it,” says Gavin. “Now, in the light of everything that’s happened, it’s the perfect fit.”

In September, Poppy will start Year 1 at Stranton Primary, but there’s plenty of time to have fun in the sea air before then.

“Come on!” she shouts. It’s playtime again with Violet…and George.