A year ago, 25-year-old Zara Christmas was rescued after suffering catastrophic liver failure; on Saturday, she cheered as her dad’s team of Sussex insurance brokers completed the world’s largest triathlon in aid of the hospital that saved her.
Four staff members from Bennett Christmas were among a group of 11 friends and family – all first-time tri-athletes – who took part in the 14,000-strong AJ Bell Olympic Triathlon, which stormed London at the weekend.
The team has so far raised more than £13,500 for the King’s College Hospital Liver Unit, which carried out Zara’s life-saving transplant.
“I was a very sleepy teenager,” recalls Zara. “I used to sleep 12 to 14 hours a day – even in between lessons at school – and yet the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with me. They thought I’d just grow out of it.”
But on her 18th birthday, in the middle of her final year at Ardingly College, she was admitted to hospital with liver failure and specialists at King’s diagnosed Zara with Wilson’s disease, a rare genetic disorder that causes copper poisoning in the body. It affects about one in 30,000 people worldwide.
“That was the first time I was put on the transplant list,” says Zara, “but my body responded to the drugs King’s had given me and for six years, all was well.”
She subsequently went to the University of Warwick, and moved to London to start work. Everything had been going smoothly, but then she started fainting and becoming more tired.
“I got sent back to King’s in July last year and they put me straight to the top of the liver transplant list.” says Zara. “The median time to find a B liver match is 133 days… I was very lucky. It took the team just three.
“After the operation, I was on 25 tablets every day – it was a full-time job just managing the medication and I was absolutely exhausted, but the Kings College Hospital staff were incredible. In terms of the liver research and treatment they do, they truly are world leading and I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. I went back recently to meet the nurses who looked after me in the intensive treatment unit, which was emotional. I can’t single any one of them out for thanks – the whole team were amazing.”
It was while Zara was still in hospital that her dad Roger, director of Bennett Christmas Insurance in Burgess Hill, said he wanted to fundraise for the hepatology department.
Colleagues at Bennett Christmas – Alex Spinks, 25, Matthew Fisher, 24, and Tom Stripp, 34, – also put their hands up for the challenge and Zara’s Sussex school friends Katherine Welch, Katie Ward, and Katya Higham-Stoianova, signed on alongside three of Roger’s friends – Steve Jones, Richard Webb, Katherine’s dad Paul Welch and Matthew’s dad, Malcolm Fisher.
The gruelling training started in earnest 10 months ago for the 1500m swim, followed by a 40km cycle ride and 10k run. Although two football injuries and a marquee post landing on Katya’s foot threatened to derail their plans, everyone made it to the start in London’s Docklands.
“We are so thankful to the team at King’s for both the procedure and the care they have given Zara and will give her for the rest of her life,” said Roger. “The doctors, nurses, coordinators, health care assistants and other caregivers were second to none. The family certainly could not have got through it without them and we wanted to give something back so that others like Zara could have a second chance of life.
“The London Olympic Triathlon challenge is one of the toughest, but the support and encouragement I received from friends, supporters and colleagues at Bennett Christmas who were brave enough to go through it with me has been overwhelming. They all have our heartfelt thanks.”
Zara has thankfully made a great recovery and says: “I am truly humbled by the amazing support our fundraising challenge has received. I’m so proud of all the participants and I know that money is going to really help a fantastic cause, I can’t thank everyone enough, especially my dad Roger, for their dedication.”
If you would like to contribute to the fundraising campaign for King’s College Hospital’s Liver Unit, go to https://goo.gl/o4dKtb