ACT News

'Dead heart' brought to life through Canberra family's love and generosity

It's clear the spirit of larger-than-life Canberra electrician William "Bill" Spencer still runs strong, 16 months after he was killed in a skateboarding accident in Narooma.

It's in his nephew, William Garner, born just six weeks ago and named in honour of his uncle.

Leah Spencer, 5, William Garner, 6 weeks, Krystal Garner, Linda Spencer, Carly Finley, Grace Finley, 8 months, Peter ...
Leah Spencer, 5, William Garner, 6 weeks, Krystal Garner, Linda Spencer, Carly Finley, Grace Finley, 8 months, Peter Spencer, Simon Spencer holding a picture of his brother Bill, Hayley Spencer, Ella Spencer, 2, and Alyce Spencer, 3 months will be walking in the 10th anniversary of Gift of Life's DonateLife Walk. Photo: Jay Cronan

It's in the "Bill doll" an old school friend made for his nieces and nephews and which is cuddled by his eight-month-old niece Grace Finley.

It's in the way his family and partner, Leigh Nelson, always talk about him and wonder what he'd think about this or that.

Little William Garner, 6 weeks old, was named in honour of his uncle, William Spencer.
Little William Garner, 6 weeks old, was named in honour of his uncle, William Spencer. Photo: Ray Vance

And it's most definitely in the people who are leading vastly improved lives after they received five organs as well as eye tissue that belonged to William, who died in October, 2014, aged 26.

His heart went to one person, his lungs to another, a third person received his kidney, a fourth his kidney and pancreas, and his liver went to a fifth recipient.

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A team of his family and friends will be walking in his memory in the 10th anniversary of Gift of Life's DonateLife Walk around Lake Burley Griffin on Wednesday morning.

His sister Carly Finley, of Holt, organised the team, called The BillLievers, a cheeky reference to pop star Justin Bieber's "Beliebers" and a nod to Bill's great sense of humour.

Eight-month-old Grace Finley holding her "Bill'' doll made for her in memory of her uncle Bill Spencer.
Eight-month-old Grace Finley holding her "Bill'' doll made for her in memory of her uncle Bill Spencer. Photo: Ray Vance

However, their participation has a serious message.

"I just think the word needs to get out about organ donation," an emotional Carly said. "If you're willing to take an organ, you should be willing to donate one."

His parents, Linda and Peter Spencer, of Macgregor, and Ms Nelson firmly believe Bill's heart was used in world-first surgery at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney in October 2014, in which a heart that had stopped beating for 20 minutes was successfully transplanted.

The so-called "dead heart surgery" made headlines around the world.

The heart was brought back to life, then placed on a machine, before it was injected with a preservation solution developed by the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and St Vincent's.

Mrs Spencer said the date of Bill's death, the date of the surgery, the fact his organs were transported from Canberra to St Vincent's and the fact Bill was taken off life support and his heart eventually allowed to die, all lined up with it being used in the revolutionary surgery.

"We realised that it was Bill's heart they used in the surgery because of the way he had to die. We had to let him die before they removed his heart," she said.

St Vincent's Hospital does not comment on the identity of organ donors.

Bill's family has independently contacted some of the recipients of his organs and that contact has given them some happiness.

"It's been really good to see something good has come out of it and just to know how incredibly grateful they are for their second chance at life," Mrs Spencer said.

Bill was Canberra born and bred. He attended Macgregor Primary, Belconnen High and Lake Ginninderra College before doing his electrical apprenticeship.

"He was a lot of fun. He was a very unique person," Mrs Spencer said.

"Bill was very well-loved. A larger-than-life character."

Ms Nelson says they will do everything to keep his memory alive.

"You definitely hope he is up there looking over us and chuckling with us because that's all you can hold on to," she said.

Two walks will be held at Lake Burley Griffin on Wednesday morning for the Gift of Life's DonateLife Walk – the standard bridge-to-bridge and a shorter option around Commonwealth Park. Both start from Regatta Point at 7am. Participants should be there by 6.45am. More details at www.donatelife.gov.au/gift-lifes-donatelife-walk and registration at www.giftoflife.asn.au/walk-registration-form