'Organ donation is a beautiful legacy to leave behind'
Published 13/08/2013 | 05:32
AT the helm of perhaps the most miraculous and inspiring sporting team in Ireland is a Balbriggan man who has just returned from South Africa after managing the national team's participation in what has to be one of the most extraordinary sporting occasions on Earth.
That occasion is the World Transplant Games which saw 1,000 athletes whose lives had been saved by organ donations from hearts to livers to kidneys, line up and compete against their peers from over 50 countries around the world.
Managing the Irish team was one Colin White, from Balbriggan, who now works full-time for the Irish Kidney Association and has come to his current role via an extraordinary tale of his own that starts in of all places, Botswana.
The maths teacher who now lives in Balbriggan had been working in Africa for years, a continent he got to know as a teenager when he lived there while his father worked on an Irish development aid project.
A transfer to a secondary school in the country was to change the course of his life forever because that is where he met his Zambian wife, Chikoyo.
Within three years of meeting, the pair were married and moved together to a school at the edge of the Kalahari Desert where Colin got to expand his knowledge of sports coaching, became an IAAF qualified coach and headed the school's sports programme.
The couple stayed there for about two-and-a-half years but a problem was developing. Colin said: 'My wife was ill and we didn't really know what was up but she was not very well at all. It was very worrying because the nearest primary hospital was not very well equipped so we were on the look out for a move to a bigger city.
'An opportunity came up from Irish Aid to work in Harare in Zimbabwe to take on a sports role in a vocational unit in a secondary school that integrated people with various disabilities.'
Colin ended up in charge of not only the school's sports programme but began to head up the national effort in Zimbabwe in Paralympic sport.
'The most wonderful thing about it was it took you back to the very essence of sport. You were teaching people to be the very best they could be,' he said.
But while work was deeply fulfiling for the Balbriggan man, at home, his wife's condition was deteriorating and they were still chasing a diagnosis for her condition.
He said: 'While we were in Zimbabwe my wife was finally diagnosed with N Stage Kidney Disease. She was really quite ill at that time and I think we were on our 14th consultant before a final diagnosis was made and it had been so long that it was actually a relief to finally have a diagnosis.
'We knew then what we were up against. The people in Zimbabwe were up front and said that dialysis was only available privately and would cost about 1,000 Irish Punts a week and I was earning 700 Punts a month so the maths didn't really work.
'They advised me to take her back to Ireland and they said that was her only chance at a future.'
A mother who was already committed to the idea of organ donation and had distributed donor cards to Colin and the rest of the family when they were young, knew that the Irish Kidney Association was the place to start and soon things were put in motion to bring Chikoyo to Ireland and for the couple to start a brand new life back in Ireland.
'We travelled back home on Valentine's Day of 2001. I will never forget it - it was some journey to get her home in one piece - it was very scary,' Colin remembered.
Days later she was in the dialysis programme at Beaumont Hospital and initially, Colin's full-time job was helping to nurse his wife back to some semblance of health. But settling in Fingal, the sports coach and teacher began to look around for work and joined Prosper Fingal working on sports and recreation programmes for the Fingal special needs charity.
His wife's dialysis programme brought the couple in closer and closer contact with the Irish Kidney Association and eventually, an opportunity for a sports co-ordinator in that organisation opened up and Colin was the ideal man for the job.
By 2005, he was working full-time for the Irish Kidney Association and he was heading up his first team of organ recipients to compete in a World Transplant Games - this time, in Canada.
Colin said: 'To say the experience blew my mind would be a huge understatement - you are sitting at an open ceremony after being paraded in behind your national flag and I never thought I would get to do that - but so much more than that, you were looking around and there were about 1,000 people around you that were alive because of the generosity of others and mostly the generosity of complete strangers.
'They are alive just because of that and they are not just alive and at home under a blanket, they are vibrant. The life force evident at that opening ceremony was incredible.'
His visit to the games inspired him and Colin realised just what an advertisement for the success of organ donation and transplantation, the games could be.
He said: 'It is just such an amazing showcase saying that transplantation works and for transplantation to work then you have to have organ donation.
'The Kidney Association is very much involved in it because of that message. The 24 athletes we took this year are 24 shining examples of why organ donation and transplantation are so successful.
'Just making that commitment and getting that donor card and discussing your wishes with your family, you are making magic happen.'
Colin has no hesitation in selling the value of organ donation because he sees the results of it every day. He said: 'As a legacy to leave by committing to organ donation - what a beautiful legacy to leave behind and what a beautiful legacy to leave your own family.
'Your family have lost you and that's a very painful experience but they can hold on to the fact that in your loss, several other lives have been saved.'
His wife, however, is currently not a candidate for transplantation but the couple are not waiting around for that day and are living life to the full.
Chikoyo is now using home dialysis which has given her a whole new lease on life and Colin said that the couple had previously been caught up living in the 'if and when' but now very much 'live in the now'.
Chikoyo's niece who lived with them in Botswana and eventually followed them to Ireland, is now married with two children and living around the corner from the couple in Balbriggan who act as kind of surrogate grandparents to the children.
It was against that happy background that Colin returned home from Durban recently at the head of a victorious Irish team that brought home a clutch of medals, including a silver for Skerries man, Peter Heffernan who is one of the senior members of the team now and one of Colin's right hand men.
The team compete at all kinds of different levels and nobody is turned away as long as they pass a medical and know the rules of their sport.
There are a few who compete at a high level even in the 'mainstream' of their sports which throws up some interesting problems. All of the transplant recipients are on a cocktail of drugs, one of which is EPO, the drug that Lance Armstrong has famously admitted to taking.
But while EPO is a performance enhancer for him, it is a life-saving renal drug for kidney transplant patients leading some athletes at the transplant games to joke: 'You have to fail the drugs test to compete in our games.'
Colin would encourage any transplant patient out there to consider getting involved in the games and he is always open to new members getting involved at whatever level their abilities allow.
He said that participation in the game is a 'hugely motivating' thing for organ recipients and it is inspiring to see transplant patients not just surviving but competing at the games into their 70s.
The Balbriggan man says that the Durban games were one of the best in recent memory and he is looking forward to doing it all over again at the next games in two years time.
For organ donor cards Freetext DONOR to 50050 of contact the Irish Kidney Association on locall 1890 543639 or log on to www.ika.ie You can now store your donor card details on your smart phone by downloading the free Organ Donor Ecard app.
For further information on the Transplant Games and how to get involved, contact Colin at 01 6205306.