An aunt's gift of life - How RTE's Vivienne Traynor donated a kidney to her nephew
When RTE reporter Vivienne Traynor donated a kidney to her nephew in 2009, they thought Martin's days of dialysis were over. But when that kidney failed, Martin was given a third shot at good health with another donation in 2014. Ahead of Organ Donor Awareness Week, the pair tell our reporter about how the transplant brought them closer together
She is known as the calm, unflappable RTÉ courts reporter and news anchor, so when Vivienne Traynor discovered that her nephew Martin needed a kidney transplant, she applied the same analytical approach to the problem as she does to her work.
Vivienne (44) is the youngest of seven children and is only nine years older than Martin, who is the son of her older brother Desmond and his wife Jackie.
When he was in his 20s, Martin developed the condition IgA nephropathy, which occurs when the antibody immunoglobulin lodges and builds up in the kidneys, and hinders their ability to filter waste, excess water and electrolytes from the blood over time.
Some people manage quite well with the condition for a long time, but in Martin's case, it developed quite aggressively and quickly. He was 26 and running his own business as a plasterer when his kidneys failed, forcing him to undergo dialysis.
"My third child Alison was born in 2006, and that was the year Martin's kidneys failed," says Vivienne, who is from Skerries, Co Dublin. "He was reeling from the shock of it, because having his normal life cut short like that in his mid-20s was devastating."
For Martin, being on dialysis was tough, not to mention life-limiting. He went to hospital three times per week, where he was hooked up for four-and-a-half hours to machines that filtered harmful waste, salt and excess fluid from his blood.
"Having a total fluid intake restriction of two litres over 48 hours was extremely difficult," he says. "It was very hard being so limited in what I could eat and drink, and dialysis was draining and took up a lot of my time. It made me feel miserable afterwards.
"I was missing out as I had travelled a lot and also liked to go out every weekend prior to that time. As a single man, I worried about whether I would ever meet a girlfriend and have kids, as who would want to take on that burden and worry?"
The options presented to Martin were to wait for a transplant from an organ donated by a deceased person, which takes on average three years, or else to have a living donor kidney transplant, where the donor kidney comes from a live person who must have a close personal relationship with the recipient.
In this case, the transplant can be organised within a number of months if there is a suitable and willing donor.
While various family members went forward to see if they were suitable under the living donor programme at Beaumont Hospital, Vivienne didn't initially because she was pregnant.
To make matters worse, Martin had been told that he had antibodies in his blood that might make him less suitable for transplant. He was on dialysis for a couple of years and was having a hard enough time coping with it, so Vivienne stepped in and asked if she could be his advocate.
At the same time, she decided to put herself forward as a potential donor, as having researched the process, she learned that you only need one kidney as your remaining kidney will compensate after donation.
Her husband, RTE sports presenter Justin Tracey, was supportive, as were her two older children from a previous relationship, Holly (now 19) and Joe (16).
One of the deciding factors was when Martin came to stay with Vivienne and her family at their holiday home in Laois during the Electric Picnic weekend.
All of his friends were camping at it, and Martin had missed the Friday due to dialysis. He went over for a while on the Saturday, and Vivienne was really sad seeing him missing out on so much of his young adulthood. She assured him that he would be there the following year with his new kidney.
Alas, Vivienne was tested and was informed that she wasn't suitable as a donor.
"Like all journalists, I decided not to take that at face value," she laughs. "We did our own research and found a procedure being conducted in the UK that effectively cleans the blood of antibodies."
Martin's doctor, Dr Colm Magee, referred the family to Dr Robert Higgins at University Hospital, Coventry, and they went across with all their files, test results and scans around Christmas 2008. Having examined them, the doctor gave them the good news that the antibody levels in Martin's blood were dropping and he was willing to do the transplant.
Both Vivienne and her sister Gina were the potential donors, and while it was initially believed that Gina's kidney would be used, ultimately the team decided to go with Vivienne. Her kidney was slightly bigger, so it made sense to put it into Martin as he was a grown man.
The operation was scheduled for August 2009, which suited Vivienne as it meant that the courts would be closed and she could take the time off work. She has been at RTE for 17 years and her bosses and colleagues were hugely supportive, and when the transplant office in the UK called with a cancellation for July - a month earlier than planned - they willingly arranged cover for her.
Vivienne's sister Gina went to Coventry with her, while Martin's mum Jackie and aunt Sandra travelled with him. Naturally it was a worrying time for the family, including Vivienne's parents Des and Phil, but thankfully everything went well.
Vivienne was brought to theatre first and her right kidney was removed, and it was then transplanted to Martin. He was up out of bed faster, and Vivienne found it hugely emotional when he came to visit her, with wires and machines hanging out of him. The operation took place on a Friday, and Vivienne got out the following Wednesday, as she begged to be discharged so she could get home to her children. Nonetheless, she found it very hard leaving Martin behind in hospital.
"The kidney was working before he had even left the theatre, so that was fascinating," says Vivienne. "Martin immediately looked better, and as soon as he recovered from the physical side of surgery, he was free from the dialysis machine and able to go on holiday. We actually went to Electric Picnic six weeks later just to make the pilgrimage and prove a point."
Vivienne says that Martin is very sweet and a great guy, and he remains very grateful for the gift of her kidney. She felt completely fine after the surgery and went on to have her fourth child, Oscar, now four. "I will never forget what Vivienne did for me," says Martin. "The five years afterwards were the best of my life, as I met my partner Mary and now we have two kids, Ted (2) and Daisy (10 months). I have always thought that they wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Vivienne, and even having the energy to play with the two babies is great."
Unfortunately, the transplanted kidney began to fail in late 2013 as Martin's original condition came back and attacked it, and by 2014, he was back on dialysis.
While Vivienne was very upset for him, she had no regrets about giving him her kidney because it gave him almost five years free of dialysis and also made him healthier and more suitable for the next transplant.
Martin went back on the transplant list and all of the family went forward for testing again, and then an unexpected phone call came in November 2014, to say that a kidney was available from a deceased donor.
When Martin phoned Vivienne, to whom he has grown very close, to tell her, she was elated but also deeply sad for the bereaved family.
"When you realise that a family took the time while they were grieving to think about someone else, that makes it mean so much more," she says. "To be there to see Martin coming back from theatre with a new functioning kidney was something else."
In the course of her day job, Vivienne covers a huge mix of criminal and civil cases, and says that there is a human interest facet behind every story. "You are dealing with pretty much everything that life throws at people," she says. "We get to see it and tell the story as best we can, and it's a privileged position to be in, in a way."
As to her own human interest story, she remains a huge advocate for the living donation procedure. "It was wonderful and a really great experience and it is one of the best things I have ever done," she smiles.
Since the second transplant, life has been fantastic for Martin, and he feels fit, strong and able to go through daily life with ease.
"I feel full of energy, like I have a new body and not just a new kidney," he says. "I feel consistently well, with none of the ups and downs of dialysis. Through my elation, it was hard to accept that a family somewhere had lost a loved one, and I will always be grateful to them for making a wonderful decision at such a tough time. All of the families who have made that decision over the years to save so many lives, while their own were being torn apart, are amazing."
* Vivienne Traynor is ambassador for Organ Donor Awareness Week 2016, which is organised by the Irish Kidney Association (IKA) and will take place from April 2-9. See organdonation.ie for more information
Health & Living