Julie Chambers, Maria Chebrika-Shaw, Susan Jackson and Yvonne Richardson originally connected through a Facebook group for parents of children who have undergone serious surgery and transplants.
Each of them have had a child who underwent a heart transplant at the Freeman hospital in Newcastle – one of only two centres in England equipped to perform the complex operation on children.
On Saturday, they met for the first time at the Heart of Steel sculpture in Meadowhall, along with other attendees who have all had their name, and in some cases the names of their family members or a special date, engraved on the heart.
The sculpture was designed by Sheffield steelworker-turned-artist Steve Mehdi and funded with support from Yorkshire businesses.
It has space for around 150,000 names with all the money raised from the engravings going to the British Heart Foundation.
Julie, from Hull, lost her daughter Zoe in 2008 at just two-and-a-half years old, following a heart transplant the previous year. She described the year following the transplant as ‘fantastic’.
“She was able to do things she hadn’t done before,” she said. “Up until her transplant she’d spent most of her life on a ventilator or a Berlin Heart (a machine that does the job of a heart mechanically).
“The greatest joy for us after she got her new heart was when she walked for the first time…. on Mother’s Day! That was the best present ever.
“We had a one-year celebration after her transplant but just two weeks later, she died in my arms. I was told that it was through a rare rejection complication.”
Determined to keep Zoe’s legacy alive, Julie set up the Grieving Mothers UK group on Facebook, to support other mums who have been through a similar experience and has also campaigned for organ donation ever since her daughters death.
“When I heard about the Heart of Steel I thought it was fantastic and we knew we wanted Zoe’s name on there,” she added. “I posted about it on one of the groups I belong to for heart mums and 50 other mums said they were also having engravings!
“A group of us decided it would be fantastic to go with our families to see our engravings at the same time. It was very emotional, being the only ‘angel mum’, but it was great to finally meet the other mums I’ve spoken to, in person.”
Yvonne’s son Chris, was in hospital at the same as Zoe.
She said: “Chris was just going in for his transplant as Zoe was leaving, but I didn’t end up meeting Julie until a while later, after Zoe had passed away. Julie and I have become really close now, and we see each other a few times a year.
“Chris was poorly for a long time before he had his transplant, and still has a lot of health problems now as a result of the damage that was done in those years.
“Despite all of that he is such a joy, I always feel so lucky and so grateful that Chris made it through and that I get to be his mum. Having this amazing group of other ‘heart mums’, with such strength in it, has really helped us when times have been tough.”
It has been nearly 30 years since Susan’s son Andrew, had his heart transplant.
Susan, from Newcastle, said: “He was born with ‘single ventricle transposition of the great arteries’ – which meant that the kind of transplant he needed was very specialised. I know how lucky we were to find a donor in time.
“Being part of the group that met on Saturday has been so important – we share our worries and our feelings and it makes a real difference knowing there are others who understand what we’ve been through.”
Maria, from Manchester, travels to the Freeman every couple of months with her son Connor to make sure his anti-rejection medication is working properly.
She said: “He was very small – only three-years-old – when he had his heart transplant, so the team in Newcastle are all he’s ever known.
“Meeting all the other families this weekend was such a moving experience. We already knew each other from the Facebook group – but actually being there together was something different.
“It was great seeing our names on the Heart of Steel as well, it is lovely knowing that they are there as a permanent tribute to what we have all been through.”
So far over 22,000 people have had a name engraved on the Heart of Steel raising £476,000.
Darren Pearce, Centre Director for Meadowhall, said: “It’s fantastic to see that the Heart of Steel has struck such a chord and resonated with so many people.
“The project has provided families with a truly unique and heartfelt way to recognise their loved ones, whilst donating to support the British Heart Foundation’s life-changing research.
“Having operated at the heart of Yorkshire for nearly 30 years, we’re incredibly honoured to be hosting it here at Meadowhall and we encourage others to come down and experience it for themselves.”
Lauren Mallinson, Partnership Manger at the British Heart Foundation, said: “We are delighted that the Heart of Steel provided the backdrop to this amazing gathering this weekend.This sculpture is a fantastic way for these families to commemorate their heart journeys.”
Each engraving means a donation of at least £20 towards the BHF's life saving cardiovascular research.
To find out more about the Heart of Steel visit: www.bhf.org.uk/heartofsteel