Sunday 18 August 2019

'I donated a kidney to save my son' - Irish dad Ian Beckett on becoming a living donor

John Beckett at home with his father Ian. Photo: Mark Condren
John Beckett at home with his father Ian. Photo: Mark Condren

Andrea Smith

When it emerged that his beloved son John's kidneys were failing, Ian Beckett didn't hesitate before becoming a living donor and saving his son's life

If asked, most parents wouldn't hesitate to offer an organ to their child if one was needed, but in reality, the majority will never be called on to hand one over. However, for businessman Ian Beckett (59) when his eldest son John needed a kidney in 2010, he didn't hesitate to offer one of his own.

"I'm so grateful, but it's not the kind of debt you can repay, as saying thank you a thousand times doesn't cover it," says John, now 34. "Dad does try to use it though, as he'll ask me to go to the shop for him, saying: 'Oh come on, I gave you a kidney.'" This jocular approach suits Ian and John, who are both practical, stoic types, with very analytical and precise ways of thinking and working.

Ian has been married to Sheila for 36 years and they have two other sons, Stephen (31) and Alan (26). John married his accountant wife, Catherine, two years ago and they are expecting their first baby, a little girl.

At 16, John was diagnosed with congenital renal hypoplasia, which means he has small and shrinking kidneys. He and his brothers were tested for the condition after their mum, Sheila, whose symptoms included being tired all the time, was diagnosed with it in adulthood. While Stephen and Alan were clear, unfortunately John wasn't as blood tests showed high levels of creatinine in his blood.

Creatinine is a chemical waste product produced by the body's muscle metabolism and healthy kidneys filter it and other waste products from the blood. If the kidneys aren't functioning properly, an increased level of creatinine may accumulate in the blood, and while Sheila's levelled off, John's kept rising as his kidneys shrank.

"I went to the brilliant Professor Conlon in Beaumont Hospital and he told me straight away that I would ultimately need a transplant when my kidney function dropped to a certain level," he says. "I was a little shocked and although I had no symptoms before I was diagnosed, it eventually got worse and I was even more tired than mum."

Nonetheless, John continued to play sport and also excelled in his career. A technology expert, John, along with his best friend, designed the first Ryanair e-booking website.

John Beckett with his father Ian. Photo: Mark Condren
John Beckett with his father Ian. Photo: Mark Condren

The opportunity arose as he had a part-time job at PC manufacturer Gateway 2000 while at school, and its head of PR, Eddie Wilson, remembered his talent when he became director of HR at Ryanair.

"Ryanair was getting quotes of £3.5m pounds to design their website and Eddie remembered I was doing this kind of work," he says. "I went in after school one day in jeans and a T-shirt and was brought to a senior board meeting with Michael O'Leary and all the lads.

"I winged my way into winning the contract for £20,000, and there was a good bit of media attention around it because I was still at school.

"I had a great relationship with both my folks growing up, although I would say I was a bit of a b****cks, because I was already making good money at 14."

Ian recalls how one of John's teachers phoned to complain about him not doing his homework. Sheila apologised and explained that John was very busy with his job and was earning about £30,000 per year. "Net or gross?" snapped the teacher, who was presumably curious to establish if her student was earning more than she was.

John left school with a "mediocre" Leaving Cert and never went to college, but he has run several businesses very successfully since then, including ChannelSight, an e-commerce enablement company working with large brands, and Eirtight Technology, an enterprise software engineering company that works with organisations who want to build new products, enter new markets or streamline their business using software and technology.

"I love the game of setting up businesses," he says. "It makes me want to get out of bed in the morning."

While his career was flourishing, John's kidneys were failing, and he was facing a life of dialysis to purify his blood, and ultimately a transplant.

For people in his position, the options are either to wait for a transplant from an organ donated by a deceased person or 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.

It is against the law to purchase or sell a kidney for transplantation and a 'living donor' kidney transplant must be seen as a 'no-strings-attached gift' to the recipient.

The average wait in Ireland, at present, for a deceased donor transplant is about three years, whereas a live donor transplant can be organised within a number of months if there is a suitable and willing donor.

In addition, 'living donor' transplantation generally results in better long-term success than a deceased donor transplant, although the principal disadvantage is that a healthy person has to undergo a major operation to donate their kidney.

John didn't feel he could ask anyone for a kidney, but he never had to as his dad Ian, brother Stephen, uncle Donal and friend Tom all willingly volunteered to be tested for compatibility. Donal, Stephen and Tom were not matches, but Ian was such a rare, close match at 96pc, the results were retested to ensure they were correct.

"I didn't have a clue what was involved, but my son needed a kidney and that was that," he says. "We go to Vienna every year for New Year and the year before the operation, I noticed just how sick he was, as he didn't look the healthiest, had no energy and was taking quite a few drugs to control the effects of his non-performing kidneys."

Ian had three months of psychoanalysis and a series of interviews to verify he understood what was involved and was happy and comfortable with what was to happen.

He also had a series of medical tests, during which it was discovered he had a clotting disorder. He says that the whole process was very thorough and professional, and he knew he had the option of walking away right until the very end.

"There were two teams - John's, led by surgeon Dilly Little, and mine, led by Molly Eng - and even on the day of the operation, they were asking me if I was definitely sure I wanted to go ahead," he says.

"I'm a pretty decisive person so there was never a question of changing my mind, but I never felt like I was on a railway track that I couldn't get off, which was the most comforting factor.

"I like to know exactly what is going on, so they explained everything that could or would happen in detail, so I never had any concerns at all.

"There was no doubt, fear or risk, as they verified my physical and mental health before the operation, and I was very impressed with the process."

While Ian is an independent consultant who has worked with US multinationals, he spends a lot of time abroad as he is also CEO of Salamanca Solutions in Bolivia, which employs 60 people.

They invented a product after the Haiti earthquake called Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA), a mobile phone application that allows aid agencies and mobile phone users in disaster areas to interact and listen in real time.

In addition to travelling for work, he, Sheila and Alan divide their time between their homes in Vienna and Dublin.

The kidney transplant operation took place in 2010 and Ian acknowledges that it must have been stressful for Sheila having both her husband and son going under the knife on the same day in Beaumont Hospital.

The Irish Kidney Association was very supportive to them too, they say. Ian's blood-clotting issue meant the team were extra cautious, but all went swimmingly and without complication.

The Becketts were probably one of the last people to undergo the old-fashioned kidney transplant that leaves a substantial scar, as they are now generally done laparoscopically.

"My beach body is gone to hell, that's the only problem," laughs Ian. "I was on the phone and back to business two days after the operation. The funny thing is that living donors usually live a lot longer than other people because they have a mandatory yearly check up for the rest of their lives.

"A lot of men tend not to look after their health, but when you get a constant reminder of what you are not doing, it helps you preserve your life."

For John, receiving his dad's kidney changed his life. Even when transplant kidneys and recipients are a close match, the immune system recognises the kidney as 'foreign' to the body, and tries to reject it, so he is on immunosuppressants. He is never sick, took only five days off work after the surgery and looks great.

"We're very lucky that we had such a positive attitude," he says. "We went into the operation saying everything was grand, and mum and Catherine brought in a Sunday roast the day before. Neither of us would suffer fools gladly in any aspect of our lives, and especially not in something as important as this, but every person through the whole process at Beaumont Hospital was exceptionally competent and professional, which was so reassuring.

"I was sore for a few days after the operation, but I immediately felt better and less tired. They don't take out your kidneys, so I have three but two don't work. I sail competitively, which is really tough, and while I noticed at the time that my ability was decreasing before the operation, afterwards I felt such an improvement in my energy levels."

For Ian, tests on his creatinine levels demonstrated that his kidney function wasn't negatively affected, and there was no difference in what he could eat and drink or how much he could travel. The positive implications for his son's quality of life were immense.

John says that his experience has taught him what's important in life, and while it isn't a debt that he can ever repay, all he can do is pay it forward to his family.

"Dad spent years keeping his kidneys nicely soaked in alcohol, and I developed a bigger appreciation for red wine after the operation," he jokes. "I feel it is my duty to keep the kidney in the surroundings it was used to!"

* For further information about Beaumont Hospital's Living Donor programme, visit kidneycentre-home

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