Sunday 24 June 2018

‘It’s the most wonderful feeling to do something life changing for another person’ – remarkable Irish woman donates kidney to stranger

Catriona Ni Aolain donated her kidney like Selena Gomez's best friend

Ilysa and Catriona with their boys
Ilysa and Catriona with their boys
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Singer Selena Gomez this week revealed she had received a kidney transplant with the organ kindly donated by her best friend Francia Raisa.

While many of us could imagine making the same gesture for a close friend or family member, not many people would be selfless and generous enough to donate to a complete stranger.

Yet that’s exactly what Irish woman Catriona Ni Aolain did last month.

Originally from Na Forbacha in Connemara, Catriona has lived in New York for 23 years and has two young sons Oskar (10) and Absalon (9) with her Danish husband Svend.

In the course of her job as Photo Director for People, she learned about a fellow New York mum of two who was desperately in need of a kidney transplant.

Ilysa Winick had contracted a near-fatal blood infection in June last year which caused her vital organs to shut down.  As if that was not challenging enough, Ilysa then developed gangrene and lost both her hands and feet.

Catriona was so moved by the plight of this woman who lived nearby in Manhattan and also had two young boys that she decided there and then to see if her kidneys were a match.

A simple blood test revealed that they were and the journey towards a transplant began in earnest with more medical testing as well as a psychological exam.

ilysa and catriona.JPG
Ilysa and Catriona. PIC: Catriona Ni Aolain Instagram

Just four weeks later the transplant was approved by the team at Columbia Presbyterian in New York and surgery was scheduled for August 9.

It all happened very quickly, but Catriona admits that while she was definite about her decision, her husband initially had reservations.

“When I first told my husband that I had called to find out about getting tested he didn't instantly agree,” she reveals.

“He was concerned for my health. We also live very busy lives and he wondered how I would possibly do this along with other responsibilities.”

Catriona’s extended family were on board from the offset.

“My family were fully supportive from the moment I shared my plan," she says.  "My mother sent me this quote from the prophet Gilbran right after I spoke to her about it; ‘You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.’

“It really stuck with me during the process of testing for the donation.”

She adds, “I'm one of six siblings and they were all great and gave me some good natured ribbing about trying to outdo them all on the do-gooder scale!”

Her family and friends proved to be hugely supportive throughout the process and particularly in the aftermath of surgery.

Catriona Ni Apolain after her operation. PIC: Phoebe Weekes

Betty, her mum, took care of her boys in Galway while Catriona had surgery and her Irish childhood friend Martina Regan took time out to fly them home.  Also, her sister Neasa flew in the day of the surgery to be with her sibling.

It was a tough time for her family for other reasons too.  Catriona admits that the timing was not ideal as her father has been very ill for the past six months.

“I really didn’t want to add another burden to their worries,” she says.

She also had worries of her own, mostly “that something freakish would happen under anesthesia and I might not wake up".

“But the odds are so minimal with this type of surgery, actually less than having a c-section which is the only other major surgery I’ve undergone,” she reveals.

She also worried that the transplant would fail for Ilysa and that her recovery would be long and arduous.

Despite her concerns and inevitable last-minute nerves ahead of the operation itself, Catriona’s resolve to persevere did not weaken.

What is even more amazing is that she did not meet Ilysa in person until the day before the operation.

“It was supposed to be a 10 minute get together and we were still chatting a couple of hours later,” she reveals.  “We had an instant connection.”

Ilysa told Catriona that she didn’t know what to say as “thank you just didn’t cut it”.

Since the surgery – organised via the charity Renewal - just five weeks ago both women have recovered remarkably well.

Ilysa Winick and Catriona Ni Aolain with their families. PIC: Steven Winick

Catriona is even able to have a glass of red wine again although she jokes, “I’m a very cheap date now.  One drink and I’m swaying!”

The two remarkable women have kept in touch and Ilysa wrote an emotional open letter to Catriona on Facebook in which she described her as a “local hero” and thanked her for the gift of life.

“It's still surreal for me when I think about you and what you were willing to do for me,” she wrote.

“You were willing to sacrifice your life; your body, your time, your family all in an effort to save mine. Me, a virtual stranger, with who you felt connected to through my words; through our shared histories and similarities. How totally selfless and noble. How incredibly brave, kind, and generous of you and your family."

It is all the more poignant considering Ilysa had lost a donor earlier this year.

She added, “I know you get a lot of questions about why you did this for me. Frankly, I don't know why you did this for me. I know I touched you in someway, I know you felt you could, I know you felt enormous empathy for my situation. But regular people don't perform rare acts of kindness. You are my superhero.”

Catriona says they share an “incredible bond” which they will have for the rest of their lives.  Donating a kidney is something she says she would recommend without reservation.

“It’s the most wonderful feeling to do something life changing for another person,” she says.

Catriona has also set a truly amazing example for her two sons who have both told her they intend to donate their kidneys when they are old enough.

Catriona originally shared her story on

For more information on donation in Ireland contact: Irish Kidney Association - LoCall 1890-543639 freetext DONOR to 50050

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