Reporter: Tara Brown
Producer: Stephen Taylor
He's built a career naming and shaming evil-doers. For Derryn Hinch, the world has always been cast in black and white.
People were good or they were bad.
Then last July, he received a liver transplant - a lifesaving operation that we were privileged enough to film.
WATCH: Saving Derryn - the battle for a new liver.
Derryn didn't know it at the time but his donor (Heath Gardner, pictured below) was a criminal, just the kind of bloke he would have railed against on his radio show.
But then came a unique and highly emotional meeting with the donor's family, a meeting that turned Derryn's life upside down.
For more information on organ and tissue donation and to find out how to register in your state or territory, visit www.donatelife.gov.au.
To register, update or change your details on the Australian Organ Donation Register, call 1800 777 203.
TARA BROWN: Derryn Hinch is rarely lost for words.
DERRYN: Hello Lynda.
LYNDA: Hi, how’re you doing?
TARA BROWN: But today, in this Melbourne hotel room, simple gestures –smiles, hugs and kisses – say so much more.
DERRYN: You don’t know whether to sort of shake hands, give you a kiss, give you a hug, or drop to my knees.
TARA BROWN: This is an extraordinary meeting that should never have happened.
Derryn wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Lynda Gardner and her daughters, Melanie and Kimberly.
LYNDA: How’re you feeling?
DERRYN: I feel terrific.
TARA BROWN: Last year, Lynda’s son died and her and the family’s generous decision to donate his organs saved Derryn’s life.
DERRYN: It is weird, isn’t it?
DERRYN: You know, I mean there it is. That’s it, that’s it in there. You never touched it have you?
DERRYN: Do you want to? That’s where the scar comes in, comes and sits right across there.
LYNDA: Oh yeah.
DERRYN: All the way through there.
LYNDA: It’s nice and soft though.
DERRYN: Oh yeah – not like the old one.
TARA BROWN: Last July, after decades of alcohol abuse and diseased with cancer, Derryn Hinch received a new liver – and a new resolve to look after it. But for that to happen, Lynda Gardner had to suffer indescribable grief. On July 4 last year, her son Heath took his own life. He was only 27.
DERRYN: The biggest moment was when Kimberley sent me a photo of her brother and I just stared at it and stared at it and got tears in my eyes – and to be honest, I looked at it and I thought, “my God, I’ve got the liver of Benji Veniamin from Underbelly – Carl Williams’ murdering offsider.” I mean, here’s a guy who’s almost a skinhead, covered in tatts with his girlfriend, half-naked standing, you know, like a shot out of Animal Kingdom.
TARA BROWN: And the truth is, Heath Gardner was a troubled man who got into trouble with the law – violence and drugs. The irony’s not lost on Hinch – he’s been a lifetime crusader against crooks – now he’s alive thanks to a common criminal, someone he’d have most likely carved up on his radio show.
DERRYN: I’d have said, “listen, you lay-about, useless drug addict, you know, tattooed bozo – never had a job in his life, you know.” I mean, the local coppers knew him. He’d been in jail for assault, he’s big solid, obviously a good fighter – which is totally post, it’s different to me you know, um. But I mean, that sort of thing didn’t didn’t stick with me for long. I mean, I was just thinking, just “Thank you. I don’t care what you’ve done or who you are.”
TARA BROWN: So you’ve just sorted through the photos recently?
LYNDA: Yes, I went through all of them. It was hard but I’m glad I did it.
TARA BROWN: No matter who he was, Heath had a mother who loved him – but Lynda’s not interested in painting a pretty picture of her son, just an honest one. He was an angelic, happy boy who grew into disturbed man.
LYNDA: Yeah, they grow up too quickly. Things change.
TARA BROWN: But just why Heath suicided, no-one knows. Do you consider that your son went off the rails? Is that a term that you’d use?
LYNDA: He just seemed to gradually change, become more aggressive maybe. It was hard, cause you used to think, you know, “what happened to this boy?”
TARA BROWN: This unlikely collision of lives happened last year, when Derryn very nearly lost his five-year battle with cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. With just weeks to live, his time was running out. Then in early July, he got the late-night call – a donor liver might be available.
DERRYN: If they were going to pull the pin, they would have pulled it by now.
TARA BROWN: Across town, at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, Heath Gardner was on life support – sadly, with no hope of recovery. His family had a very painful decision to make.
LYNDA: Heath’s father said that, “we’ve been asked to donate his organs, are you OK with that?” and I said, “yeah, of course.” I just didn’t think twice about it. I understood how important it is to at least make something good out of something that’s bad, if you can.
TARA BROWN: It’s incredible that you can think that way at the time.
TARA BROWN: Where does that strength come from?
LYNDA: I don’t know. It’s just there. I knew when the kids were younger, they used to say they would want to donate their organs.
TARA BROWN: So you were convinced that you were following Heath’s wishes?
LYNDA: Yeah, but I’m sure that he would have wanted that. I’m sure he’d be glad.
TARA BROWN: But before the operation could go ahead, surgeon Bob Jones had some last-minute and confronting news. If Derryn chose to have the transplant, he may get hepatitis or HIV because Heath had been a long-time drug-user.
DERRYN: I didn’t know it but that night, behind the scenes there were all these top-level meetings going on with Bob Jones. I mean, I guess that he was thinking to himself, “well, I don’t want to be the guy that gives Hinch AIDS.”
BOB: In fact we told him just very straight we said we have a young donor who is otherwise a perfect donor, but the trade-off is there is going to be an unknown risk of infection and we’re not going to know about that risk of infection to you for at least three months after the transplant. So the worst case scenario is you sail through the transplant and three months later we say that “you’ve caught HIV, we’ve transmitted it from the donor.”
TARA BROWN: Derryn and wife Chanel had only minutes to make the toughest call of their lives.
DERRYN: Chanel said, “So what do you think? What are you going to do?” and we talked about it and I said, “darling, I’ve been a gambler all my life – let’s do it.”
TARA BROWN: While Derryn was being prepared for surgery at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital, Heath’s family said their final goodbyes.
LYNDA: We were there till about 2:30 in the morning. We went and sat with him for a while. That was hard but at least we saw that he was at, peace.
TARA BROWN: It took seven hours for Derryn’s old, diseased liver to be removed and the new one put in.
CHANEL: It’s a very bittersweet thing, because you do know that someone else has died and there’s a family somewhere just going through an awful time so that someone you love can live. So it’s difficult.
TARA BROWN: For Lynda, all these months later, it’s surreal but also comforting to watch the operation.
LYNDA: From the moment I saw them bringing in the container, I knew you know, that was my son’s liver and just realised how so important and amazing that they can do these things.
BOB: The old one looked pretty average. It’s a big, ugly cirrhotic damaged liver and very hard to get out. We really struggled. He’s a big guy and it’s been quite a difficult operation.
LYNDA: And then they brought up my son’s liver out and it was just so, well it was beautiful and healthy and the way the doctor was holding it was like a newborn baby to me.
TARA BROWN: Was is hard to watch?
LYNDA: You’re feeling pain and happiness for someone at the same time and they’re a weird combination. You’re sorry for your son but you’re glad for someone else.
TARA BROWN: At the time, Lynda and her family had no idea whose life was being saved by Heath’s death. But Derryn’s appearance in the news, confirming the date and time of his transplant, was a clue too tantalising to ignore.
KIMBERLY: The following morning I think we were actually at Dad’s, the news came on and he was on there, thanking a family and saying he doesn’t know who it is, “but thank you.” And we sort of felt like he was talking to us – like, we all thought, “wow, he got it for sure.” There was no doubt about it.
MELANIE: Yeah, we knew.
KIMBERLY: It was too much of a coincidence.
TARA BROWN: In the complicated life of Derryn Hinch, he went from hospital to home detention for five months for naming paedophiles. During that time, he wrote an anonymous thank you letter to the family of his donor.
LYNDA: “To my donor family. It has been nearly six months since I was the person fortunate enough to benefit from your son’s life-saving gesture. Let me just assure you that you and your grief were uttermost in the minds of my wife and I, from the minute we got the call and after the transplant operation. We are forever indebted to you.”
TARA BROWN: With Derryn’s anonymous letter at hand, Lynda’s daughter Kimberly bravely decided to make direct contact to confirm the family’s suspicions.
DERRYN: That moment it hit me so hard that “these people are real, they’ve made a decision in grief and now they’re even prepared to share you know, some fairly grubby details of a loved one’s life” and I’m so proud of them. I really am.
TARA BROWN: At any point did you go, “I wish I didn’t know, I wish I didn’t know any of this?”
DERRYN: No, didn’t cross my mind. No I wanted to know, whatever. I mean I’m quite practical about this. I said, “I want to know” and I want to know more.
TARA BROWN: Did you at any stage go, “oh no…
KIMBERLY: Not at all.
MELANIE: No way.
TARA BROWN: …not Derryn Hinch”?
KIMBERLY: No, no not at all. We knew about what he’s done for people and…
MELANIE: Oh yeah.
KIMBERLY:…He’s got great morals and respectable man so we were rapt.
MELANIE: Yeah, we were really happy.
DERRYN: Thanks to you Kimberly, for having the guts to start it all.
TARA BROWN: Contacting Derryn took some spunk on Kimberly’s part – because no-one even knew if it was legal for them to get in touch, to break the anonymity of organ donation. What has brought you guys together is this great motivation to meet one another. Why do you want to meet?
DERRYN: I have part of this family inside me and will be there until I die. I mean, I am now physically connected to this family and so you want to know.
TARA BROWN: Do you frown upon this meeting between the donor family and Derryn?
BOB: It’s certainly not something that we would help because legally, we are not able to do that. I guess in other patients it may not end up so happily, but in this particular circumstance it’s a wonderful story and I think we’re relieved that it has worked out.
TARA BROWN: In death, Heath saved the lives of three people and for his mum, in some way, that keeps him alive. How proud are you of what he’s been able to do, how he’s been able to help other people?
LYNDA: I just, I just hope he knows somewhere that he’s done that and I think he would be proud, would give him peace too.
DERRYN: I think it retrieves something from a lost life. I mean, he was going to hell in a hand basket and his life was going to end tragically in some manner or form. But out of this, the fact that he lived has made three other people get a second life. Because most people who are not signed up as donors, it’s through ignorance or they don’t quite understand it, they’re scared, they think, “what if I’m not really dead?”
TARA BROWN: The good news after months of rigorous testing is Derryn is in the clear. No hepatitis and no HIV. Now he’s repaying his enormous debt by being loud and proud about the need for organ donation. With the gift of a new life, Derryn plans on being around, spreading the message, for a long time yet.
DERRYN: Just to say “thank you”…it sounds so empty and so not good enough but I tell you I’ll…
LYNDA: I know.
DERRYN: My dear old grandma used to say, “they done him proud” and I said “I’ll do him proud, I promise you.”
LYNDA: Thank you, that means a lot.
DERRYN: I promise you.
LYNDA: Thank you.