PETER BARRON meets the North-East couple hoping the New Year will bring the news that will lead to a normal life for their little girl, who is in desperate need of a kidney transplant

AS a children’s entertainer, Gavin Lancaster is in the business of inspiring smiles and positivity. But, as 2023 approaches, he and his wife, Becky, admit to having “mixed feelings”.

New Year’s Day will always be remembered by the Hartlepool couple as the day their adorable little girl, Poppy, finally received the kidney transplant she desperately needs – only for it to be rejected.

That was two years ago, when their elation turned to devastation within a few days, and their hopes for 2023 are consequently tempered by the fear that it could all end in despair again.

“The phone could ring any time, telling us that another match has been found and, of course, that’s what we badly want to happen,” says Gavin. “But it all came crashing down last time. One minute, we were celebrating the best possible start to the New Year, the next, we were back to square one, so, naturally, that makes us anxious about whether we’re ready to go through it all over again.”

On the day of my visit to the family home, a few days before Christmas, Gavin has already done seven children’s parties, and he’s understandably exhausted.

In contrast, five-year-old Poppy and twin sister, Violet, are bursting with pre-bedtime energy. Poppy rushes up for a hug, narrowly beating Violet in the race, and is keen to announce that she’s asked Santa for a new bike.

“Now then, trouble,” says Gavin.

“I’m not trouble,” Poppy replies, looking up at him with a cheeky smile.

Until May 2019, there was no suggestion of the chronic health problems that were about to blight Poppy's life. She’d been taken to Hartlepool University Hospital for allergy tests because she and Violet were dairy intolerant but, within hours of having bloods taken, the alarm had been sounded that there was something wrong with Poppy’s kidneys, and she had to be taken to North Tees General Hospital immediately.

Kidney failure was diagnosed, and Poppy – just 19-months-old at the time – lived at the hospital for the next five-and-a-half weeks before she was ready to start on the home dialysis that has become a necessary part of her life.

When Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the world in March 2020, it hit the family hard. Becky, a qualified beautician, was a full-time carer for Poppy, while Gavin’s main income – staging children’s parties through his business, Higham Discos – ground to a halt.

Along with countless other businesses, he had to be creative and, during lockdown, he started live-streaming discos from home, with more than 3,000 people tuning in.

“The home discos didn’t make any money, but it was my way of keeping going and, more importantly, it made other families happy and helped them through a difficult time,” he recalls.

Government furlough payments, and the occasional booking for virtual children’s parties over Zoom, paid the mortgage and household bills while Poppy's dialysis continued as a nightly routine.

In September of that year, Poppy was finally placed on the donor list and then came the wildly exciting call, on New Year’s Eve, to say a potential match had been found. Within an hour-and-a-half, Gavin was delivering Poppy and Becky to the Royal Victoria Infirmary, in Newcastle.

“It was all-systems-go and the match was confirmed early on New Year’s Day,” says Gavin.

Poppy had the transplant at 1pm and all seemed to have gone well but, the following day, there was a problem. One of the valves in the transplanted kidney was blocked, and she was back into surgery to remove a blood clot, but the good news was that the kidney was left in.

However, on January 4, another blockage was diagnosed. Poppy had to return to the operating theatre with several blood clots and, this time, the kidney had to be removed.

“We were absolutely elated for a while but then it all started to unravel so quickly, and we were left utterly devastated,” explains Gavin.

Poppy went onto haemodialysis, meaning she had to spend three full days a week in the RVI over five weeks. That was followed by a return to home-based peritoneal dialysis but Poppy caught a bad case of peritonitis that led to an emergency operation in March.

When she came home from hospital after that latest surgery, she had 14 months free of dialysis, even though she only had eight per cent kidney function.

“They didn’t know why she was able to go without dialysis, so we just got on with living as normal a life as possible. Then, in May this year, she went to hospital with high calcium levels and she was put back on dialysis,” says Gavin.

Now, Poppy has 10 hours of dialysis in her bedroom six nights a week, is responding well, and has been back on the donor list since August.

“People look at her and don’t realise how poorly she is and what she’s been through because she’s just a very happy little girl who isn’t phased by anything,” says her dad.

The couple, who also have another daughter, Gabrielle, 16, and a son, Higham, 10, have a static caravan, at Crimdon Dene, that they use as often as possible at weekends and during school holidays. It’s been named Poppy’s Place and is described as “38 feet of fun”.

Meanwhile, the wait goes on, and Gavin recently became an ambassador for NHS Organ Donation, using his platform as a well-known children’s entertainer to help get the message out about the importance of 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, and are not in an excluded group. However, people can also agree to become donors while they are still alive, with the kidney being the most common organ to be donated. Indeed, about a third of all kidney donations in the UK are now from living donors.

The family car and all of Gavin’s party equipment is branded with Kidney Research UK, and there’s a #TeamPoppy Go Fund Me page, with donations doing direct to the charity.

“We just want to do whatever we can to raise the profile about NHS Organ Donation, and Kidney Research UK, so I’m having conversations with parents all the time,” says Gavin.

“At a Christmas party the other day, I was talking to the parents of another little girl called Poppy, telling them our story, and within hours they’d made a generous donation.

“It’s not just about our little girl but all the other families out there who desperately need help.”

Here’s hoping 2023 turns out to be the happiest of years for Team Poppy.