Photos of Benjamin Shaw are displayed in the Loadsman family’s Cairns home as if he’s a cherished part of the clan — but they never met the larrikin teenager who died five years ago.
They tell youngest child Harper Loadsman, 15-year-old Ben is her angel — the boy who saved her life.
“He lives inside of you,” Harper’s mum Jana Loadsman says.
The seven-year-old, one of five children, listens intently as she’s told “Ben stories” — how he loved playing rugby league and the North Queensland Cowboys. How he would make people laugh with his irreverent sense of humor and how he gave her a priceless gift in 2017 — apart from his liver.
Under laws designed to protect both families’ privacy, DonateLife Queensland is unable to confirm whether Harper received Ben’s liver.
But through an extraordinary twist of fate, family and friends who were connected on Facebook were able to solve the mystery and bring the families together.
In May, their detective work culminated in Harper being a flower girl at the second marriage of Ben’s dad, Scott Shaw, to long-term partner, Brei Milne.
For Mr Shaw, the knowledge that his son’s liver saved Harper’s life has helped him through the darkest of days without his beloved only child.
“He was just the best kid,” Mr Shaw says proudly, describing the day his son came into the world as unquestionably the best day of his life.
“He was loud, brash, had a devious sense of humour, a real cheeky smile.
“I still miss him every day. I couldn’t imagine a life without him.
“I wanted to check out — but following Harper’s journey, it sustains me.
“I count it as one of the things that probably kept me going because I don’t know where I’d be now if I hadn’t had that. That was like a rescue.
“It gave me hope.”
Ben was declared brain dead in the Queensland Children’s Hospital intensive care unit at South Brisbane several days after he was bench pressing almost 100 kilograms unsupervised at the Pine Rivers Police Citizens’ Youth Club. The bar slipped, crushing his neck. He was not found by staff until about 20 minutes later.
Mr Shaw was in Sydney when his ex-wife phoned and told him to “come home right away”.
Ben, their in-vitro fertilization “miracle”, had been seriously injured in an accident.
He says he knew Ben “was gone” soon after he arrived at his son’s bedside in the ICU.
“It stays with me forever, when they shone a torch in their eyes and their pupils didn’t react, that’s when I knew,” Mr Shaw says, his voice choking with emotion.
“That only happens when your brain’s shut down. His eyes were the eyes of a dead person. Nothing will ever prepare you for it.”
When doctors confirmed their worst fears later that week, it was not a difficult choice for Ben’s parents to donate their son’s organs.
Their hearts breaking, Ben’s mum and dad said in unison: “What about organ …” and then they stopped.
Without finishing the sentence, they both knew what they wanted to do without any discussion.
Ben would become an organ donor, in keeping with his generous spirit.
‘She’s going to make it’
Later that day, after getting “the call” for Harper’s transplant, as the Loadsmans drove into Brisbane from their then home at Cabarita, in northern NSW, they were greeted by a sky lit up with fireworks.
“It’s a sign,” Jana Loadsman said at the time, clinging to anything she could show that her daughter would be OK.
In her world, rainbows had always been a symbol of positivity.
Looking at her husband Shane, Harper’s dad, she told him: “She’s going to make it. Look, there’s the rainbows.”
At the same time, Ben’s bed was turned to face the windows and fireworks on his last night, machines keeping his heart beating, surrounded by grieving family and friends.
The next day, Mr Shaw read his son a children’s book they shared when Ben was little — Guess How Much I Love You.
Then, holding Ben’s hand one last time, he walked beside his son’s bed as it was wheeled down the corridor towards the double doors of the Queensland Children’s Hospital (QCH) operating suites.
“So long, buddy. I love you,” he says.
But as the fifth anniversary of Ben’s death nears, Mr Shaw prefers to focus on his last memory of his son as “a functioning human being”.
The weekend before he died, they watched the rugby league together, Ben’s team the North Queensland Cowboys triumphing, and enjoyed their first — and last — beer together.
“I love you, Ben, I love you mate,” Mr Shaw tells his son, giving him a hug.
“I love you too, Dad,” Ben replies.
That night is etched in Mr Shaw’s memory as a “beautiful” time with his son.
“It started out as just a very ordinary night – a dad and his boy watching the footy,” Mr Shaw says.
“It’s become a very important night to me. We had a great time together.”
A week later, Mr Shaw watched the rugby league alone as he mourned, the television news updates showing images of Ben after journalists were advised of the teenager’s death.
On the other side of town, at the QCH, Harper was beginning her long recovery from the liver transplant that would see her in and out of hospital for months.
She was not yet three years old.
Her mum chronicles her journey on the Hope for Harper Facebook page and through “a friend of a friend”, Mr Shaw serendipitously learned of the little girl who received a liver transplant in the same hospital and on the same day his son became a donor.
In those early days, the families first connected via Facebook Messenger.
“She didn’t have much time left, poor little thing,” Mr Shaw says, recalling the photos of Harper before her transplant, her skin tinged yellow because of her liver disease.
Without a new liver, doctors feared Harper would not have survived beyond early childhood.
Soon after birth, her parents were told their youngest daughter was unlikely to live beyond six months after being born with serious health issues — a chromosomal abnormality and biliary atresia, resulting in blockages in the tubes that carry bile from the liver to the intestines.
As Ms Loadsman contemplates the enormous gift Ben—and his parents—have given her daughter, and her family, she talks of ongoing feelings of grief for their huge loss.
‘I’m a really emotional person and it was hard for me to fathom the fact that somebody had lost somebody and saved my daughter in the process,’ she says.
“And especially when we later found out that Ben was an only child – an only child saved my fifth child –and then I felt: ‘Oh God.’ It’s quite overwhelming.
“I think we’re all still quietly traumatized. All of us, we’ll always grieve for Ben.”
It’s a burden, Mr Shaw does not want the Loadsmans — or any other recipient families — to carry.
“It’s only recently Scott actually said: ‘You’ve got to stop grieving for us. You’ve got to let this go, Jana,'” Ms Loadsman says.
“You’ve got to be so thankful and just love that little girl in every part. We’re OK.”
From their first interaction the year after the liver transplant, the relationship between Harper and Mr Shaw has been heart-warming for both families.
On the first anniversary of Ben’s death, the Loadsmans drove from Cabarita to the home Mr Shaw shares with Brei at Taigum, in Brisbane’s north, for the families to meet. Harper got out of the car, yelled Scott’s name, and ran into his arms from him.
“She just grabbed him around the neck and squeezed like you cuddle your dad,” Ms Loadsman recalls.
“Her spirit knows. It’s the most unbelievable thing. Those two have the most incredible, spiritual bond. To see them together, it’s just beautiful.”
On May 7, wearing ballet slippers, a party dress and with a crown of flowers in her hair, Harper was a flower girl as Mr Shaw married Brei, his partner of 15 years.
“She came running out yelling: ‘Uncle Scott, Uncle Scott, yay,” he says.
“Seeing that little face light up when I turned up was really special.
“She seems to be quite drawn to me and wants to be with me whenever I’m around and loves hanging out with me.
“She’s a little angel, she really is.”
After the nuptials, they lit a candle in memory of Ben.
“We said that while it’s sad that Ben isn’t with us, part of him is with us in Harper,” Mr Shaw says.
“It was important to acknowledge our loss, but at the same time, I don’t think it detracted from the sense of joy of the day, because it was a great day.”
Ben, who attended Bray Park State High School, was one of 510 Australians who donated organs after their deaths in 2017.
Last year, 421 Australians donated organs after death, including 91 Queenslanders, the COVID-19 pandemic impacting numbers.
DonateLife Queensland manager Tina Coco urged Australians to use DonateLife week, which ends today, to consider joining the Australian Organ Donor Register and to ensure their loved ones are aware of their wishes.
She says four out of five Australians support organ and tissue donation, but more than 13 million Australians aged 16 and older have not yet signed on to the register.
Ms Coco says while social media is resulting in more donor and recipient families meeting than in the past, privacy legislation prohibits health professionals from facilitating contact.
“We’ve seen some very positive connections between donor families and transplant recipients and that’s been lovely,” she says.
“But there’s also been some unhappy occasions.
“It is a unique experience for everyone. People are different, families are different.”
After years spent in and out of hospital, Harper Loadsman proudly started school this year in Cairns — her every achievement providing solace for Ben’s dad.
“We don’t have Ben but I’m looking forward to seeing Harper grow up,” Mr Shaw says.
The Loadsmans plan to stay in close contact, describing the Shaws as family, and will continue to tell Harper “Ben stories.”
“Ben will live in everything we do,” her mom says.
“He’s part of us.”
To sign on to the Australian Organ Donor Register visit their website.