Re-born Sheffield artist Pete Mckee thrilled to see bigger picture

Pete McKee
Pete McKee
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It was one of those moments artists have tried to capture throughout history.

A moment of revelation, re-birth and joy.

Pete Mckee, painter, ukulele player, husband, dad and Wednesdayite sat in his back garden in the sunshine and listened to the birds sing.

Never had he heard such beauty, never had he felt more alive or so glad to be so.

At 51 years of age the much-loved Sheffield artist was becoming himself again, his newly transplanted liver clearing his blood, body and brain of the toxins the old organ could not cope with.

His ornithological epiphany was one of several in a magical two-week period following the seven-hour transplant operation.

The 14 days when Pete Mckee got his life back.

Like the time in hospital when, just out of intensive care, he found himself pounding the arms of a chair and stamping his feet to a song (Hit Or Miss by Ordetta) as tears of happiness and relief streamed down his face.

And the time he first came back to his home in Sharrow, Sheffield, and surrounded by his family, put on that same music, fell into his wife Jane’s arms and they both sobbed with relief and happiness that he had been given another chance.

It’s a chance that also means he has to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life, can’t go out without sun block cream and has to be careful with certain foods.

None of which are much of a hindrance to a man who feels born again.

“Everyone should go through a life-saving operation to realise what’s important in life,” says Mckee - and he’s only half joking.

So how did he go from successful painter, band member and family man to someone needing a liver transplant to survive?

“From September 2014 I started feeling unwell,” said former record shop and Tesco worker Pete.

“I was always cold and tired, had lots of heartburn and if I had three pints it took three days to get over it. It was obvious something wasn’t right.

“I had a series of liver function tests and discovered I had a genetic condition called alpha anti-trypsin disorder which affects the liver. I apparently inherited it from both parents. My brothers and sister have been tested and they don’t have it.

“I was devastated when they told me I had cirrhosis. There is no cure but the medical advice is that you can slow it if you eat well, exercise and cut out alcohol. I did all those things but it got worse.

“By the end my feet and calves were swollen, my eyes were a grey-yellow and my skin was changing colour. End-stage liver disease makes it look as though you have a sun tan and people remark how well you’re looking. “Actually you are dying.

“Eventually they told me I needed a liver transplant early this year.

“Six weeks later I was being operated on. By this time the impurities in my blood caused by the liver not working properly had begun to affect my brain. I was showing signs of encephalopathy (degenerative brain disease).

“My thoughts and speech were slow. I had stopped laughing and my emotions were flat. I had become a husk of a human being.

“Jane was an absolute rock through it all. She was with me every step of the way. She has problems of her own but this time she had to be my rock and I hated it.

“I was called to St James hospital in Leeds in the middle of the night of May 6 and when they said: ‘OK it’s your turn, get on the trolley’ I got really scared and wondered did I really want to take the risk?

“I’m so glad I did. I would be dead now if I hadn’t.

“I had to say goodbye to Jane not knowing if we’d ever see each other again. We just both said: ‘I love you’.

“When I got into the pre-op room I was terrified but I got chatting to the anaesthetist. He was a Wednesdayite from Sheffield and we talked about the play-offs. It really relaxed me. I knew I was going to be alright from then on.”.

“After the op and a couple of days in intensive care they eventually moved me on to the ward and I began to realise I was on the mend.

“The biggest thing was that I got my brain back. The new liver was clearing my blood. Before the op I hadn’t allowed myself to realise how bad it had got. But this was amazing.

“It was like getting a huge overdose of myself back. I was bubbling and laughing. It was a seismic change, a truly incredible feeling.

“I’m an atheist but I can only think of religious words to describe it, it was a revelation.

“For two weeks my senses were so heightened. The birds were singing four times louder, colours were brighter and the whole world seemed larger than life.

“I want to remember that feeling for the rest of my life and I want to grab life and live it more than ever.

“I’ve been so lucky where others haven’t. I’ll never forget that.”

Letters could mean walk away from ‘survivor guilt’

THE only downside is the guilt.

Pete Mckee’s Survivor guilt that he got another chance when his close friend Sheffield photographer Shaun Bloodworth didn’t.

And the guilt that his liver donor had to die to save his life.

But that guilt and a determination to make the most of his second chance are driving Mckee on.

And he has already made contact with his donor’s next of kin. All he originally knew about the person who donated the liver was their age and sex.

Mckee was saved by the tragic death of a 49-year-old man from North Yorkshire.

The power of the emotional forces unleashed by the donor process are such that recipient and donor’s families are advised to communicate via the transplant co-ordination team for at least two years.

Mckee is already in regular contact with the family of the man whose death meant that the popular Sheffield artist could be re-born.

“The first thing I wanted to do was to write to thank my donor’s partner and to tell them what it means to me to have this second shot at life.

“It was a really difficult letter to write. You don’t know who they are or whether they have a partner or kids. I vaguely addressed it to somebody or somebodies and the transplant team asked them if they want to receive it.

“His partner did. He donated all his organs on his death and his partner is incredibly proud of that and is doing her best to raise awareness of the donor programme.

“She wrote back to me and we now exchange regular handwritten letters.

”I want to meet her when the time is right. To tell her how I feel about her partner’s gift to me.”

Their contact may also lead to a new hobby.

“I’ve never been a walker, added Mckee.

“I don’t think I’ve walked more than two miles in one go in my life but I quite fancy doing the three peaks challenge when I get my strength up. I found out that my donor and his partner were big walkers and that he had already done that walk.

“I’d like Jane and I to get together with her and perhaps do one of the Wainwright walks with her that she hasn’t already done.”

*Join the organ donor register at www.organdonation.nhs.uk