Monday 23 April 2018

The gift of life: Ireland's transplant athletes speak of their experiences

The Irish entrants swept the boards at last week's European Transplant and Dialysis Sports Championships. They see the games as a way of saying thanks to the unsung heroes who have given them a second chance

Sean Marshall, who won a gold and a silver at the games, with his wife Marianne and daughter Lorna
Sean Marshall, who won a gold and a silver at the games, with his wife Marianne and daughter Lorna
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

As the Irish Transplant Team competed in the European Transplant and Dialysis Sports Championships, participants hoped to bring comfort to the families of organ donors, who have given them the greatest gift of all - life.

"It's a really positive way to give back to everybody who has contributed to your health and keeping you right," says 46-year-old liver transplant recipient Deirdre Faul from Dalkey, Dublin, who won four medals at the event.

At just 35, Deirdre, then a mother of two children aged three and five, became seriously ill. "Essentially I just got sick," she explains. "I had vertigo, I felt sort of sea sick and that kept going on and then I got jaundice and the doctor thought I had gall stones, then they thought it was something viral."

Within three weeks Deirdre's liver failed and she received a transplant.

"It was very unexpected," she says. "You wake up and all of a sudden you have this liver transplant and you don't know what your life is going to be and when you will get out of that hospital bed."

It took three months before Deirdre did manage to get out of hospital and two years before she felt she was back to normal. Only then could she return to her beloved sport, but within months she joined the Irish Transplant Team.

"I think everybody who has a transplant always thinks of the donor. I certainly always think of my donor, especially in situations like this week. It's very emotional and the donor is there with you. I would not be here without them," Deirdre says.

"I wouldn't have seen communions and confirmations and got to spend time with my children and see them growing up. You always remember what that person has given you."

The Irish Transplant Team comprises 25 men and nine women ranging in age from 16 to 76. Five of the teammates have had liver transplants, 22 have received kidneys, one has had a combined pancreas and kidney transplant, another a bone marrow transplant and five more members are currently undergoing dialysis treatment.

Sean Marshall, a gold and silver medal winner, took part in the games for the first time this year. The Tralee native received a bone marrow transplant from his brother Padraig in 2010, following Sean's battle with a rare cancer called Waldenstroms macroglobulinemia.

Sean, who was formerly a number one Irish Darts champion, competed in a number of events at the games, including the darts competitions and a five kilometre run.

"My five siblings came in and were tested and my brother Padraig was a 100pc match," Sean explains.

After months of setbacks following this happy discovery, including a serious infection which Sean very nearly did not survive, he eventually rallied and was well enough to receive his brother's bone marrow in early 2010.

"I haven't looked back since, I am flying. I got the all clear there about 13 weeks ago and decided to go for the games to celebrate."

"I won't beat any records when I run. The timing to me doesn't matter because I have been given extra time in this world, so if it takes me two days to finish it, that to me is still worthy of a celebration," Sean adds. "It is absolutely amazing. To give somebody life is probably the greatest gift you could give anyone. I love my life. Before I wasn't living at all, I was only existing, but now I go to the beach and I can see so many different things that I didn't see before.

Sean Marshall, who won a gold and a silver at the games, with his wife Marianne and daughter Lorna

"I love every bloody minute of it! I am so appreciative of life at the moment and it's thanks to my brother. I would be dead only for him."

Robbie Lyons (20) was just 15 when he received a kidney transplant. "It was something that I had my whole life, I was born with it, but it never really affected me until the later stages just before the transplant, between the ages of 13 and 15 it really," he explains.

Robbie's transplant came just as he began his Junior Certificate year. "I was about a month into school when I got the call so, then I ended up missing the entire year, but I still sat the Junior Cert and got through that," he says. "Things like that I suppose couldn't come at a better time."

Robbie received his kidney from a deceased donor and has huge respect for donors and their families, who make tough decisions to donate organs to people like him.

"I have been around donor families this year, more than any other year, so seeing the other side of it has opened my eyes a lot, it is what the games are really about," he explains. "For me it's mainly for the donor's families out there, to show them that their decision wasn't for nothing."

Since his first time taking part in the transplant games in 2011, Robbie has relished the opportunity to get fitter each year and to connect with others who have been through the same experience.

"They have had a massive impact on my life. It just shows that there is so much more after transplantation. Getting the chance to represent your country and travel to all of these places is brilliant. Meeting people who have been through the same thing, that's massive," he says. "When you get a transplant as a young person it can seem as if it's the end of the world, but when I look back, five years down the line, I wouldn't be where I am now if I hadn't got it."

After suffering from progressive renal failure since birth, James Nolan (47), received a kidney from his sister Catherine 27 years ago. Last week saw James compete in his 18th transplant games.

"Firstly it's a lifestyle decision and creates a real awareness of health in your own life because you have the goal of going to the games. You are keeping yourself as healthy as you can be, which is really important," James explains. "But there is a far greater side to these games too. I know how lucky I am to be participating.

"I think an awful lot of the transplant recipients would feel that it is a way for them to honour their donor," James adds. "In my case I am very lucky because I can just pick up the phone and call my sister Catherine and we can chat all the time and I can tell her how grateful I am to her, but a lot of recipients can't do that."

According to James the games show living organ donors and the families of the many deceased organ donors just how vital and worthwhile their decision to donate was.

"When you see the transplant athletes on the news or read about them in the paper, it shows that organ transplantation does work and that we are so genuinely grateful for getting that second chance," he explains. "We'd like to think that it might give a little bit of light to people, who have made the decision to give an organ at a very difficult time and that we might just give them a little bit of hope and comfort."

Another benefit of the games is to show people starting out on their transplantation journey that life does go on.

"We'd like to show the people just starting out, who have maybe just been diagnosed that it's not the end of the road, just because you are chronically ill, it is the opening of a new road in your life," James says.

"When I go to these games it's a reminder for me of just how lucky I am," James adds. "I am 27 years transplanted and it's wonderful to now have the support of my wife Emma and our 14-month-old son Andrew James Nolan. He is everything to the two of us and that's another little thing that could possibly have never happened to me only for being lucky enough to get the kidney. He is the greatest little treasure we could possibly have. We go everywhere together."

Almost 500 participants took part in the Games , which finished up on Saturday.


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