Long walk back to good health and fighting fit again
When Chikoyo White learned she had serious kidney problems, she was sure her life was drawing to a close, says Joy Orpen. But thanks to her loving husband and the Irish health system she is fighting fit again
If Chikoyo Lombe had remained in her native Zambia, she would probably be dead by now. But fate intervened and led her into the arms of an enterprising young Irish man and that changed the trajectory of her life.
Chiko, as she is known, left her home in Zambia in 1996 to study fashion design in neighbouring Botswana. At the time, her brother-in-law was teaching at a school nearby. He then introduced Chiko to one of his colleagues, a teacher from Dublin called Colin White. They fell in love and married in 1999.
In 2000, the couple moved to Zimbabwe where Colin worked in sports development for people with disabilities. "They were interesting times," he says. "There were currency shortages at the time and that caused all sorts of problems, like not being able to put fuel in the car."
Meanwhile, Chiko was experiencing problems of her own. She had been suffering from oedema, which is a build-up of fluids, and general ill-health for some time. And though she had seen a total of 14 doctors between the two countries, no one could give her a reason why she was feeling so bad.
Finally, an Irish-trained doctor ascertained that Chiko was suffering from late-stage kidney failure. Having a diagnosis did not, as is often the case, bring welcome relief. In fact, it only spelled out the awful truth - that her situation was pretty hopeless, given the poor health services in Africa.
"Treatment is very expensive over there," says Colin. "It was costing more in a week for Chiko to have dialysis than I was making in a month."
So what could they do? Colin called his family in Ireland who, in turn, contacted the Irish Kidney Association. (IKA). They then referred them on to Beaumont Hospital who asked that Chiko's medical files be faxed to them. Once that was done, they were invited to come to Ireland for treatment.
And while that presented a ray of hope, there was immense sadness too. "I was very sick at that time," says Chiko. "I didn't think I could be saved. My mother pleaded with Colin not to take me. 'Can you not leave her here and let us bury her in her own country?' she begged. All I could do was put my trust in God."
Colin says it was pretty frightening. "She was so terribly ill," he says of his wife. "We really didn't know what the future held. It was a very scary time."
Finally, in February 2001, they left Africa. The airline allocated a row of seats so Chiko could lie down during the flight. The day after they arrived in Dublin, she was admitted to Beaumont Hospital and was immediately put on dialysis.
She'd been critically ill for the previous two years, so the medical team under Professor Peter Conlon had their work cut out getting her in better shape. In the meantime, Colin's parents, Noel and Siobhan, welcomed Chiko into their Ratoath home with open arms, and did everything they could to make their daughter-in-law feel welcome.
As time moved on, it emerged that Chiko was also suffering from high blood pressure and liver disease. "At the moment my liver is OK, but my blood pressure is all over the place," says Chiko. "They just don't know what's causing what. Professor Conlon has been doing a lot of research with his colleagues [to ascertain the root cause of all this]".
Chiko has been on haemodialysis since she first came to Ireland and that used to mean she had to spend several hours being dialysed in hospital, three times a week. This is always an arduous process for patients, since the rest of their lives have to be put on hold. However, four years ago, Chiko was given six weeks of training to prepare her for home dialysis.
She and Colin have allocated their spare bedroom for this purpose and every second day Chiko settles down for four hours to have the machine do the work of the kidneys in cleansing her blood of impurities. Not only is she infinitely more comfortable at home, she has the freedom to plan her life in a way that suits her best. "I have a TV and I bring in my laptop as well," says Chiko.
But long before she set up her dialysis 'clinic' at home, Chiko had unexpectedly become involved in sport. "Someone in the IKA suggested I join the Irish team for the Transplant Games," she says. She explains that she can't go on the transplant list until her high blood pressure and liver problems are brought under control. But she is hopeful that one day she will get a kidney transplant. In the meantime, however, she will support the IKA and do her bit for the Irish team.
So far, she has travelled to South Africa and Poland representing this country and has won several medals for various sports, including the 100m sprint and tenpin bowling. When asked what it's like to be representing Ireland, she says: "Oh my god, it is so amazing. It's like one big happy family. Colin is the team manager but I never worry when he's not with me, because everyone is looking after me. All the other competitors wanted to be with the Irish team because we have so much fun."
Another reason why Chiko wants to be part of the team is to raise awareness among minority groups living in Ireland about the importance of becoming organ donors. She says she wants to do what she can to promote the concept of organ donation, particularly among the non-Irish.
"There are many Africans in this country on dialysis. Yet many more who are healthy don't understand how organ donation works. Some believe that if you become a donor and are involved in a traffic accident, doctors won't be in a hurry to save your life - therefore they are afraid to become donors. So we need to change these completely wrong perceptions," she says. "Kidney failure does not limit itself to Irish people - everyone is affected and everyone can help, including Africans. It's all part of active citizenship. If you're coming to live in Ireland, one way you can fully participate as a good Irish citizen is by becoming an organ donor."
Chiko has nothing but praise for the help she has received here. "People say the Irish health services are bad, but as an African who has been to Beaumont many, many times, I can say the health services are excellent. I know if I was still in Africa I would have died," she says.
And there she stands, proud in her Irish team tracksuit with a couple of medals around her neck.
For organ donor cards, freetext DONOR to 50050, or see ika.ie. Download an organ donor card to a smartphone by searching for "Organ Donor ECard" in the app store. Your wish to be an organ donor can be included on your driving licence