A North-East family is celebrating the first anniversary of their ‘amazing’ little girl being given a kidney that’s transformed her life – and now she’s set for the British Transplant Games! PETER BARRON reports

FIRST birthdays are always special occasions – but the party arranged for George was a particular cause for celebration.

Balloons, banners, and bunting set the happy scene. Presents were carefully wrapped, along with a Peppa Pig card. And a single candle was lit on a cake topped with chocolate buttons.

“It lasted the whole day and it was the best party ever!” declared Gavin Lancaster – and he should know because, as a children’s entertainer, organising fun-packed parties is what he does for a living.

Gavin has lost count of the number of parties he’s staged in his time, but none have been remotely like this one.

You see, George is the name given to the kidney that’s transformed the life of his little girl, Poppy.

It was May 4 last year when Poppy, aged five at the time, underwent her second kidney transplant at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, in Newcastle.

The Northern Echo: Then and now...Poppy Lancaster in hospital with kidney failure - and celebrating George's first

The first – on New Year’s Day, 2021 – failed within days, leaving Gavin and his wife, Becky, devastated, and Poppy back on a daily routine of dialysis to keep her alive.

However, the second transplant has proved such a success that Poppy’s family decided to mark the first year with a kidneyversary, together with a party for George at their static caravan at Crimdon Dene, on the County Durham coast, a few miles from their home in Hartlepool.

It was Poppy who, without explanation, named her new kidney George. Her dad’s theory is that the inspiration was one of her favourite cartoon characters, called Curious George, although she’s also a Peppa Pig fan, and George is Peppa’s little brother.

“Wherever it came from, the kidney’s been known as George ever since – and we talk about him as if he's part of the family,” laughs Gavin.

“The one-year anniversary is seen by the medical team as a really important milestone, so we thought it would be nice to give George his own birthday party.”

Once Poppy and her twin sister, Violet, were asleep, Gavin and  Becky set about decorating the caravan. Known as Poppy’s Place, the caravan's become their sanctuary from the stresses of everyday life, so that's where Saturday’s party was held.

“Naturally, we had to have some presents, so we bought Poppy and Violet some Lego sets to unwrap on George’s behalf!” explained Gavin.

Becky also ordered two hand-made ornamental bears, with heart-shaped pendants, as souvenirs for the twins. Poppy was quick to name her bear 'George', while Violet has called hers 'May'.

And there was a Peppa Pig card, with the message: To George the Kidney, Happy First Birthday, here’s to making more memories – love Team Poppy.

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The joy-filled day was in stark contrast to some of the tough times the family has faced since Poppy was first diagnosed with kidney failure as a toddler in May 2019, meaning she had to be placed on dialysis for ten hours a day, six days a week.

By the time she had her second transplant a year ago, her kidney function was down to just seven per cent but, throughout her ordeal, she’s remained a happy little girl with a cheeky smile, and zest for life.

“Despite all the ups and downs she’s had to face, she’s been phenomenal. She just keeps on amazing us, and we couldn’t be more proud of her,” said Gavin.

“The only real issue we’ve had since the transplant came in February when Poppy spent two weeks in hospital, on a load of antibiotics, because she'd picked up three nasty viruses.

“Other than that, she’s back to living as normal a life as she ever could, and enjoying being back at school with her friends again. She still has monthly appointments at the hospital in Newcastle, but she’s only missing half a day each time.

“It’s a massive relief that she doesn’t need dialysis anymore, and we’ve got a little girl who looks healthy again, eats like a horse, and is extremely active.”

Due to her illness, Poppy has always been smaller than her twin but, since the transplant, she’s been catching up fast.

Gavin and Becky, who also have two older children, Gabrielle and Higham, regularly measure the twins’ height and, in the same period that Violet grew half a centimetre, Poppy shot up by two.

In fact, she’s doing so well that she’s now preparing to compete in the British Transplant Games, which take place at Nottingham at the start of August.

There are lots of events on offer, but Poppy’s chosen to represent Team Newcastle in two of them – the sprint and the cup-stacking race.

As always with the Lancasters, it’s a family effort because Becky’s busy crocheting kidney keyrings, and organising cake sales, to raise funds towards Team Newcastle’s travel and accommodation costs.

While it’s the happiest time the family have known since Poppy’s diagnosis, they also know that, somewhere, there’s a family who made a decision, in the midst of their grief, to enable Poppy to have a future.

“We don’t know the background to the family who donated the kidney, but we’ll always be grateful, and it’s possible we may choose to find out about them somewhere down the line,” explained Gavin, whose experience has led to him becoming 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.

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Poppy's donated kidneys may have been a big success, but it won’t last forever, and Gavin and Becky know she'll need another transplant in the years ahead.

But, for now, they’re simply enjoying being able to watch her live life to the full, with her loving family…and her best friend, George.