Tuesday 24 April 2018

'It was just like winning the lottery' - Transplant recipients on the operations that gave them a second chance at life

As part of Organ Donor Awareness week, two transplant recipients tell our reporter about the operations that gave them a second chance at life

Life after surgery: David Nolan and Freda Kavanagh, who both have had kidney transplants. Photo: Damien Eagers
Life after surgery: David Nolan and Freda Kavanagh, who both have had kidney transplants. Photo: Damien Eagers

Ailín Quinlan

She thought she just had high blood pressure - so test results showing that her body was struggling to function on just 20pc of her kidneys came as a huge shock to businesswoman Freda Kavanagh.

Today, however, she describes the kidney transplant she received two years after that disturbing revelation as akin to "winning the lottery". Following many months of dialysis and adherence to a special renal diet, not only did the transplant completely transform her quality of life, but it unexpectedly brought two good friendships.

In her 40s, Freda experienced what was initially diagnosed as high blood pressure caused by a stressful job - but, she recalls now, her job was not actually that stressful, and the medication she was prescribed for the diagnosed problem wasn't working.

"I was on medication but every time I went back to the doctor the blood pressure was still very high," says 60-year-old Freda.

Freda later relocated to Ashford, Co Wicklow, before moving to Red Cross, just outside the town of Arklow, where she now lives.

After moving house and changing doctor, she again reported problems. She was sent for tests and in 2008, at the age of aged 50, was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease.

"I had 20pc function in both kidneys. That came as a terrible shock; I couldn't believe it. My first reaction was one of disbelief."

There followed two tough years of dialysis, during which Freda, who ran a specialist bedding company, continued to work, struggling through the slew of familiar but debilitating symptoms which had plagued her through her 40s: weakness and low energy levels, pain throughout her body, insomnia, bladder problems and high blood pressure. She was not alone - more than 4,450 people in Ireland are being treated for kidney failure, with more than 2,000 undergoing dialysis.

"During this time, I was assessed to go on the transplant list and had to undergo many tests," she explains. "You have to be physically very fit and healthy before they'll approve you for the list."

Freda was approved for kidney transplant in 2009 and in June 2010, at the age of 53, had the operation. She is one of a few hundred people to undergo transplant operations annually; last year 280 organ transplants were carried out in Ireland.

It was during this time that she met two people who were to become fast friends; the first, Sheila Garvey, was a transplant patient she met during the final dialysis session before the operation. She was to become Freda's 'kidney sister'.

Following the operation, the women learnt that they had received kidneys from the same donor. They recovered in the same ward, and left hospital around the same time. Since then she and Sheila, who lives in Galway, have remained in regular contact.

A few days after the operation, Freda woke up in the middle of the night to hear a patient in the next bed talking to a doctor as he was being prepped for organ transplant.

She recognised the man's voice as that of a neighbour from the village of Ashford, where she lived at the time. "I had known that David had kidney problems but was not aware he was on the transplant list," she says.

David, now aged 51, had kidney problems since his 20s and had been on different medications for years. However, in 2007 and 2008 his condition worsened. Like Freda, he eventually began to receive dialysis and was put on the transplant list.

"I knew Freda before the transplant but we became friends after it," David says, adding that his transplant brought him a much better quality of life.

For Freda, the transplant was transformative: "I always refer to the day that I got my transplant as the day I won the lottery because that is exactly how I feel - it's worth a million euro to me."

Within hours of the operation she started to feel better.

"My body was functioning far more efficiently and it was because my new kidney started working within around an hour of the transplant.

"All the toxins that had built up inside me when I had very low kidney function were now being flushed out of my body.

"Before the transplant, I was like a broken-down car. Everything was starting to stop working. After the transplant operation my body felt like a new car I was driving out of the showroom."

Freda believes her positive experience of kidney transplant also helped an old friend faced with a difficult decision to offer her son's organs for transplant following his death.

"I think she took solace from the fact that she had seen how well I had done, and how I was able to enjoy life after receiving a donated kidney. I like to think it was made less difficult by seeing how well I had done with a kidney transplant," says Freda.

She says the transplant not only changed her physically, but also made her more grateful as a person.

"As a result of my transplant I have been given the gift of life. It makes you more conscious of the need to be generous to other people and my daily gratitude levels have soared. It's about passing it on. Somebody helped to save my life and I want to help the living in every way I can."

The Irish Kidney Association's Organ Donor Awareness Week runs until April 8 and reminds the Irish public to hold family discussions about their wishes concerning deceased organ donation. The public is urged to support the Irish Kidney Association by buying a 'forget-me-not' flower and other merchandise while its volunteers distribute organ donor cards. Organ donor cards can also be obtained by phoning the Irish Kidney Association on 1890 543 639 or Freetext the word DONOR to 50050 or visit ika.ie. It is now possible to store an organ donor card, on smartphones. Search for Donor ECard on IOS or Android

'I had been on oxygen non-stop for two years'

At 76, Vera Dwyer is a Guinness Book of Records holder for being the longest living single lung transplant in the world. It saved - and entirely changed - her life. Vera, from Carrowcrory Co Sligo, says that without the operation in her 40s she wouldn't have had the opportunity to become a great-grandmother, let alone a grandmother.

"I had the transplant in May 1988. I was flown from Sligo to Dublin and then to Harefield Hospital in London. It was the first time this operation had been done," she says, noting that before she went under the knife her husband and daughter were told she had hours to live.

"I had had lung problems for some years and they had become very severe. I had been on oxygen non-stop for two years when I was given the transplant," she says. The mother of four grown-up children, grandmother to six and great-grandmother of two, is now intensely proud. "I never thought I'd be around to see my own children grown up, let alone see my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren! My lung transplant gave me a new lease of life, thanks to my donor." Vera also received a kidney transplant in 2009 when she was in her late 60s. "Both of the transplants have completely transformed the way I live... It's all thanks to people who donated their organs, and to the people who carried out the operations and took care of me throughout, that I enjoy life now with my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren."

Irish Independent

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