Felip Ariza

Marta and the lives she's saved

She took her own life at the age of 16. Her grandparents, who raised her, donated all her organs. Now they would love to find the recipients. "If we knew who had them, it would be like her saying I'm still here, I'm still alive," they say

ALBERTO GÓMEZ

Marta, a fictitious name but this is a true story, liked computers and karate, walking her dog along the beach and lazing in bed five more minutes before getting up to go to school. She was 16, with a whole life ahead of her which she didn't want to, or couldn't, go on with. Something inside had broken, had detached her from the world and she couldn't see a way of closing that gap.

"She presents emotional instability," says the psychatric report from the Juvenile Mental Health Unit at the Clínico hospital which, almost like a telegram in abrupt sentences, details the disorders that were tormenting her. "Inability to bond. Frequent suffering because she feels she has no communication skills. She feels rejected by her peers. She feels sad and unwell. Has a tendency to obsess about some things. Above-average intellectul level".

Marta grew up without her parents, with whom she had an intermitent relationship. Since she was young, she had lived with her grandparents, Juan and Lola (not their real names, at their request).

"They are her figures of affection and authority," says the report. A judge appointed them as her guardians in 2010. "We had been trying to adopt her, so that she would have our pension if anything happened to us," they say. "But she went before that happened." Because on 10 April, Marta committed suicide.

That Saturday, amid all the devastation, they had a flash of absolute clarity: their granddaughter, who was generous and compassionate, would have liked them to donate her organs. "Any limits?" they were asked by the hospital, before being warned that it would take time and would alter their grieving process because they wouldn't be able to see her body. "No," they said. "Save whatever you can."

Now, a middle-aged woman who was undergoing dialysis because of chronic kidney failure has Marta's right kidney. A man with the same illness received the left one. Two young girls have recovered their sight, thanks to her cornea. Her liver has saved the life of a terminally ill woman: a code zero, as such patients are known, those who will die within a few hours if they do not receive a transplant. Her heart beats in a man from Madrid who had a very serious cardiac condition. They didn't know her, but they will always have a part of her. They are her six new lives. The donation has also helped dozens of people through tissue and bone transplants.

A letter from the Andalusian Health Service confirms that the recipients "are well, and beginning to recover normality" after the operations and thanks Marta and her grandparents for their generosity: "There are decisions in life which are impossible to understand and which cause infinite pain. You not only knew how to look after her, but out of this pain you have been able to gift life, and there is no greater act of love than that. Marta would be very proud," it reads.

Her grandparents have not yet returned to the family home in the El Atabal, district of Malaga where everything reminds them of her. First they rented a room in El Palo and then an apartment in Torre de Benagalbón. Juan, a tall, well-built man, breaks down. "I'm never going back there," he says. He was the one who found his granddaughter's body.

"We don't know what we will do. I suppose we'll sell the house," says Lola. "We're devastated. Marta was our life, 24 hours a day. Like a daughter." And then she immediately corrects herself: "More than a daughter, because she needed us. We knew we had to look after her in so many ways. It was awful to see her so sad."

But they didn't ignore her mental health, nor did they shut their eyes to a reality which affects an increasing number of adolescents. That's why they took her to therapy every Monday and to a psychiatrist, who prescribed anti-depressants.

But, as with every suicide, there are so many unanswered questions. "Marta wasn't prepared for this world. She didn't belong to this world," says her aunt, Laura. "You would say to her, oh, what lovely earrings and she would take them off and give them to you, even if she had only just bought them. She was a very selfless girl." That is why the family thought about donating her organs, even before the hospital had suggested it to them.

Marta didn't enjoy a happy or even simple childhood. She was diagnosed with slightly delayed development and problems with her left ear which meant she had to wear a small hearing aid, but that didn't stop her reaching the first year of the Baccalaureat without needing any special classes. "And she finished ESO [Secondary education] with an average grade of 7.8," says her grandfather, proudly.

"She had her speech therapist," adds her grandmother. Because they did everything possible to help Marta to shrink the gaping hole she felt within, including speech therapists, psychologists, private teachers and personal trainers. "Whatever she needed. One day she asked for a desk and a gaming computer, and we pooled our payments to get them for her." They were tortured by the idea that she would feel discriminated against for being different from the rest.

"They have given their lives for that girl," says psychologist Noelia Espinosa, of the Asociación Alhelí, which is dedicated to suicide prevention and where Lola and Juan go for therapy to break their silence. "They need to talk about her. It is therapeutic to talk about people who have gone. Silence doesn't contribute anything, it just stigmatises, masks and makes death more sombre and dark. And not talking about suicide doesn't reduce the statistics, as we have seen. It is a devastating tsunami."

There, with relatives of others who have committed suicide, Lola and Juan learn to shake off the shame and guilt. Because the grief after a suicide is always a double grief: the trauma because a loved one has died is combined with social incomprehension, the "but how come you didn't notice", the murmuring that hurts like a betrayal.

"They often feel singled out, they feel they should have been able to do more. But grief is a mental trap, it doesn't matter what you do," says Espinosa. In therapy they try to 'deactivate' these emotions that weave a cruel web that the relatives feel will suffocate them.

Adolescents

Lola knows about this sense of guilt. She fell into that trap for weeks. Because on that Saturday evening, they had had a row. It was a common scene in any household with teenagers. "My husband had gone out for a walk and we were on our own. I told her she had to do some school work. "That's enough of the computer, you have had a terrible day, glued to the screen all the time," I said. We had an argument because I turned off her internet connection, so I went out to have a coffee," Lola says. And then Marta killed herself.

"I have felt so guilty so many times because I left her alone for a while. Guilt is like water, it gets everywhere," she says. But she has learned, even if she falters sometimes, that the end was not in her hands.

"We had often turned off her internet and she always used somebody else's," she says. Because Marta "was brilliant at technology," interrupts her aunt. That's why they had visited a centre where she was going to sign up for a course in professional IT training.

It was a skill she had acquired while searching for a refuge in social media. Marta had hardly any friends and had forged most of her relationships in the field of technology, where not everything is what it seems.

"She was on forums where people would encourage others to do things, to see who was the bravest. She cut her arms. She had a life that wasn't real. I believe she idealised death," says her aunt.

For years her grandparents had been trying to break down this wall. They signed her up for Scouts, spinning classes and even the church.

But coronavirus put an end to all that and Marta went back to her isolation and virtual relationships. Her aunt believes her suicide was a collateral damage of Covid-19. "There's no doubt in my mind," she says.

More and more young people like Marta require psychological and psychiatric attention. "The main risk group," say sources at Alhelí, "is aged between 15 and 19." They seem to have everything, but they don't know how to manage their emotions, the invisible health. Sometimes the crises are aggravated by problems such as bullying, homophobia or eating disorders.

Juan has finally found an answer to one of his thousands of questions. "She died from an illness. That's what it was. Because the mind also gets ill."

Lola often thinks about the people who received her granddaughter's organs. "If any of the recipients happens to read this and gets in touch... if we knew who has her eyes or her heart, it would be as if she was saying to us I'm here, I'm still growing. Even if it is in other bodies," she says.

Information

  • If you or someone you know is going through a bad time Contact Samaritans in Spain (English) 900 525 100 or Teléfono de la Esperanza (Spanish) 717 003 717. In the case of an emergency or imminent risk, call 112.

Over 100 people, planes and ambulances:"A special case"

The operations needed for organ donation are never easy, but in Marta's case, as she was so young and fit, more than 100 professionals were needed, including pathologists, lab technicians, radiographers and surgeons.

Domingo Daga, the medical coordinator of transplants in Malaga, said, "As she was young, we knew that the chance of the tissues functioning in the recipients was much higher.

"Teams came from outside Malaga, planes and ambulances were mobilised. It was a huge and dramatic operation."

They kept in touch with Marta's grandparents all the way through.

"I hope it helps them to know that, even though they are grieving deeply, they have brought life and hope to others," said Daga.