'If it hadn't been for my donor I would have never become a dad'
James Reynolds was shocked to discover that his kidneys were barely functioning. Now fully recovered after receiving a kidney transplant, he tells our reporter why supporting the World Transplant Games is so important
'As soon as he was handed to me, I knew my life had changed forever." These are the words of new dad James Reynolds (29), following the birth of his son Dylan. They are immensely significant words, because James thought it unlikely he would ever have a family, because of chronic health problems.
"They knew, soon after my own birth, that there were issues with my kidneys," says James, who grew up in Tallaght, Dublin. Over the years, he was admitted to Our Lady's Children's Hospital, Crumlin (OLCH), on numerous occasions, with kidney infections.
"I missed a lot of school," he says. As the Leaving Certificate approached, James's mother suggested he postpone it for a year, but he declined. "I wouldn't let my health prevent me from doing anything," he says. So he put his head down and got a very respectable result.
However, that summer still did not turn out the way James expected. One day he injured his hand playing football, so he went to Tallaght Hospital for treatment. As he had now turned 18, the process of transferring him from the care of OLCH to Tallaght had already begun. So when he presented at the hospital with his injury, staff decided to complete the transfer process.
Having examined his hand, they also did some blood tests. They then invited James into a private room for a chat. "I thought that was really odd, for a minor injury," he says. However, what they told him was far from trivial.
"They said I was at Stage 5 renal failure, which meant I had less than 12pc kidney function," James explains. "That was really frightening. They couldn't believe I hadn't come by ambulance."
The main function of kidneys is to filter waste products from the blood. When they fail to do so adequately, it causes waste products to accumulate in the body, and this can lead to all sorts of complications. Kidney failure can prove fatal, if appropriate medical help is not forthcoming. However, in certain conditions, the kidneys may heal. But that was not the case with James. He subsequently spent the whole summer in hospital.
Meanwhile, his former classmates were all over the place enjoying their newfound freedom. "I went to the hospital for a routine plaster and ended up staying there for four months," he says wryly. He adds that there were days when he was "really angry," but that was tempered by having great support from his loyal family and good friends.
Initially, James was put on peritoneal dialysis, which uses fluids to remove waste material from the stomach cavity. But for technical reasons, this became unfeasible. So he was put on haemodialysis instead, which mechanically removes blood from the body, cleanses it, and then returns it to the body.
James was on dialysis for four hours, three times a week. When he left Tallaght, he was given the option of continuing dialysis at the Beacon Hospital (under the supervision of Tallaght). And while going to the Beacon involved travelling further afield, James says it was worth it, because there were more, and younger, patients there.
Having learned that he needed dialysis, James also got the devastating news that he would eventually need a kidney transplant, and so he was put on the transplant waiting list. "I'd always been led to believe that my kidney problems were manageable," he says, "and that I wouldn't need a transplant. So this came as quite a shock."
Even though he was on dialysis, he had to be very careful about his fluid intake. "I was allowed 350ml (less than two cups of tea) a day in total; and that included any liquid in solid food. There just was nowhere for excess fluid to go," he says.
For the next two years, James waited for a suitable organ to be identified. During that time, he never travelled abroad and he always kept his mobile switched on. Finally, in the summer of 2009, his phone rang at 2am, while he was out socialising. He was told to come straight to the hospital.
"I was calm," James recalls. "I was excited, too, but I had the thought that the transplant might not work. And, of course, it's a bittersweet thing. You know your life is going to change, but you also know you're getting an organ because someone has passed away."
When James woke up some hours after the operation, he was thrilled to learn that his new kidney was already functioning well. Thankfully, it didn't take long for him to get back on his feet and to start living a more normal existence. He now works as an administrator.
Around this time, James heard that the Irish transplant sports team was going to be competing in Australia, but it was too soon for him to travel. The next games were held in Dublin.
"I didn't even get to stay in the athletes' village," he says ruefully. Nonetheless, since then, he has won seven medals in bowling, darts and petanque (a form of French boules), and he is now addicted to the games. Along the way he has competed in Poland, South Africa, Dublin and Croatia.
"It's all about raising awareness about the benefits of organ donation and transplantation," James explains. "When you watch athletes from all over the world parading under their country's flag in the opening ceremony, it's very, very moving. Every single one of them is there only because someone, somewhere, was generous enough to donate organs to them. It really does show the importance of organ donation, and highlights the fact that, post-transplant, you can lead a really normal life again.
"It also encourages patients to take good care of their bodies, and especially their new organs," he says.
And the games are not just for transplant patients - patients on dialysis can also compete.
Right now, James is gearing up for the games in Malaga, Spain, next summer. He is especially excited because his girlfriend, Samantha Connor, whom he met two years ago, will accompany him, as will their beautiful son, Dylan, who was only 12 weeks old at the time of this interview.
"I was there when he was born. As soon as he was handed to me, I knew my life had changed forever," James says of his baby son. "But the truth is, if it hadn't been for my donor, Dylan wouldn't be here now."
The World Transplant Games, in conjunction with Astellas, invite organ recipients to write an essay about their fitness programme post-transplant. Some 12 essay-writers will then be chosen as 'ambassadors' for the Fit for Life programme. They will fly to Chicago for a rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand. The closing date for entries is today, September 25. See wtgf.org/ambassadors
Sunday Indo Living