'Losing Billy was devastating - but his death gave the gift of life to four people'

THIRTY years on from the death of a teenager he had raised as his own, local man Ian Yarwood has made an impassioned plea for people to consider giving the gift of life.

Moved by the plight of Antrim man Mark Smyth, who has months to live if he does not receive a liver transplant, the former soldier has sought to enlist more volunteers to consider organ donation.

It is an issue Ian is passionate about, because he has been there. Nothing can replace a loved one, but he insists that the comfort his family and friends have drawn from making sure that four people were not taken in the first place helped them in their darkest hour.

The local man admits that the events of summer 1988 will stay with him forever.

Eighteen-year-old Billy loved the open road and he desperately wanted a motorbike - and he was not going to take no for an answer.

His mum Anne and Ian were initially hesitant, but eventually agreed and on July 7 they travelled to Ballymena to pick up a gleaming new 125cc Gamma racer.

“He was so excited,” recalled Ian.

“I got him the bike, leathers, helmet, signed all the documents and off he rode into the sunset, waving to me. He was delighted - we both were.

“We used to warn him about speeding, road safety and all the usual but his mates all had motorbikes and they were a great group of lads so we thought he would be fine.”

Life as they knew it changed forever on July 31 when reports filtered through of a single vehicle road traffic accident on the Dublin Road in Antrim.

It happened near a sharp bend heading out towards Crumlin - and it involved a young man on a motorcycle.

A nurse living nearby heard the commotion and she administered CPR until the ambulance arrived. But it was clear that the patient’s injuries were bad. Very bad indeed.

Initially, Billy was taken to the Waveney Hospital but given the severity of his injuries, he was quickly transferred to the Royal Victoria.

His mother had been informed and was racing towards Ballymena - while Ian was unaware of the tragedy unfolding until he was approached by a UDR patrol in Tardree Forest.

“The patrol commander was a good friend of mine and he informed me of what had happened and I started heading to Ballymena too, hoping that we were only looking at a few broken bones.

“On my way along the A26 I saw an ambulance coming the opposite way with its blues and twos on. I knew Billy was on board. I just had a real gut feeling about it.

“In case I was mistaken I headed on to the Waveney but I was immediately informed to get to the Royal Victoria. Anne was already on her way.

“I eventually got there and met up with Anne and we were told that he had suffered massive brain injuries and was on life support with very little chance of survival.

“How do you prepare for something like that? He had that bike for three weeks and it was the end of him.”

They remained at his bedside knowing their boy was not going to wake up. This was a long goodbye. Every parent’s worst nightmare.

But out of that unimaginable darkness came a powerful beam of light. This could not be allowed to be a senseless loss of a promising young life.

With Billy slipping away from them, they decided to seize the opportunity to give hope to other families also facing heartbreak and loss.

After Bishop Cahal Daly administered the last rites, arrangements began in earnest for transplant - and they were determined to help as many people as possible.

At that time kidney transplants were common in Ulster hospitals, but experts from London and Manchester jetted over to assist with the removal of the liver and heart too.

“The consultant, Mr Evans, explained to myself and Anne that this was a first for Northern Ireland. Surgeons were flown in on Learjets to give the gift of life.

“A six-year-old girl from Edinburgh got a kidney, and a nine-year-old girl from Manchester got the other one. A 40-year-old man from Birmingham got Billy’s liver.”

The heart went to an 18-year-old, who feared her time with her new-born baby would be short.

“Bushra Mohammed had given birth to her baby Zarina just three months before the operation.

“Her family came from Pakistan and they were Muslim - and at that time this was enough for some to deny use of their organs.

“Back then you could actually make pre-conditions on who could receive your organs, based on race and religion.

“We never agreed with that. Everyone has a right to live.

“Anne met Bushra in Manchester about three months after Billy passed and we stayed in touch with the family for many years. They were lovely people.”

Billy died on August 8 - and the numbers 8/8/88 will be forever burned into Ian’s memory. A life had been lost, but four more had been saved, and many of them will have gone on to have children too.

Speaking this week, Ian has urged everyone to make their wishes known when it comes to organ donation.

“I’ve drawn so much comfort from the fact that some good came a tragedy,” he said.

“That week in the RVH was the worst ever and I hope and pray that anyone reading this finds themselves in the same situation.

“It’s not a comfortable conversation to have, but it’s an important one.

“Anne and I never regretted our decision. Billy’s dream of joining the Royal Air Force never came true, but his death saved the lives of four people. There are people living and breathing today because of what happened here in Antrim 30 years ago. That’s amazing.

“Think about your organs, after all they are no good to you when you are dead.

“In the meantime, though, there are thousands on waiting lists watching time slipping through their fingers when we all have the power to make a difference - people like Mark Smyth.

“So have that talk. Find out where you all stand. And let’s start changing lives.”

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