Why I gave one of my kidneys to a stranger
Kate Brady tells Lisa Jewell about her altruistic life-changing decision
'Everyone's initial reaction was just: 'What?' They thought I was mad," says Kate Brady on how people responded when she told them she was donating a kidney to a stranger.
But Kate held firm to her desire to benefit someone else and donated her kidney to a man through a London hospital.
This type of donation – called non-directive altruistic donation – is not available in Ireland but is in other countries such as the UK (since 2006) and the US.
Kate, who is 32 and from Brittas, Co Dublin, had long been a blood donor, but the thought of donating a kidney came through the film Seven Pounds. Will Smith's character tries to benefit as many people's lives as possible, and his methods include kidney- and bone-marrow donation.
"I saw that and was so inspired at the end of the film. I just thought, 'I'd like to be able to do something like that'. Some people said not to say that I was inspired by a film as it makes it sound like you're crazy.
"But you know, you get your inspiration from everywhere – an article, a book, a conversation. I thought of all those people stuck in hospital beds and not being able to live while I had two kidneys and could live completely fine on one.
"With my health, I just never get sick and I feel really strong – both physically and in my head as well."
Kate says her mind was made up while driving home from the cinema, and she decided that if the risks of kidney donation all seemed reasonable, she was going to go ahead and do it.
"I went home and researched it for a while. I was okay with the risks – obviously they were there, but I feel there are risks with every operation. I'm not a big worrier. I just weigh up everything in my head and think chances are it will be fine.
"So I rang up a place in Dublin saying I'd like to volunteer and they said it's not possible to donate to a stranger in Ireland and the closest place would be the UK."
That was in 2008. Life took Kate to Boston for a year and then she got a job in London. She is still there and works as a behaviour analyst with autistic children.
"One day, I must have been reminded of it and thought I should look into it. So I rang up the hospital in London. I went in to talk to someone and got the ball rolling."
Kate was made aware of the risks and had to undergo medical tests and a psychological evaluation.
When asked why she wanted to help someone who was a stranger, Kate says she just felt it was in her nature.
"I do like helping others – with my career teaching children with autism, it's something that I strive to do. I thought, 'My health's intact, my life's great and if I can help someone else, that would be great'."
When she told her friends and family of her plan, everyone was shocked.
"My mum was worried and said she'd be relieved if I didn't pass the tests to do it," she says, "but she said she was obviously proud of me and if that was my decision, that was my decision.
"My three brothers – all quite strong characters – all strongly disagreed and tried to talk me out of it. The younger two eventually came around, but the oldest one just really disagreed with it. There were a lot of 'What ifs' thrown in, but I could answer a lot of them.
"I was asked why didn't I wait until I was older, but I thought, well, if I was to wait until I have kids and a house, it wouldn't be easy to take the time off to do this."
Ater she passed all the evaluations, it was a case of waiting for a recipient match. Kate had asked that the operation take place during the school holidays so she would have enough time to recuperate.
"Then a few weeks later, I got an email to say they'd found a match," she says.
She went into the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London.
"When I got there, I was sitting on my own and the nurses were quite busy," she says. "I was feeling a little bit lonely and thinking I should have got Mum to come over earlier. I had insisted that she didn't. But once I went to bed that evening and woke up the next morning, I felt perfectly calm."
Kate had keyhole surgery and a small caesarean incision to remove the kidney.
"Afterwards, the pain was worse than I realised it was going to be. But that mainly lasted during the first few days and then when I was recovering, it was just if I laughed or coughed," she says.
"You forget the pain afterwards though – your body doesn't have a memory of pain once you're out of it."
Kate returned to work after nearly three weeks of rest and says that two months after the operation she felt back to her normal active self. The scars have since healed up well and Kate's medical tests have so far been normal.
She will continue to receive health monitoring for the rest of her life – research has shown that kidney donors have a longer lifespan than non-donors (this could be due to the health monitoring or the fact that they were healthy to start with).
The system in the UK means that kidney donors and recipients are only put in touch if both parties want to do so.
"I had originally thought that you'd automatically meet the recipient, but if you both want to send a letter to the hospital and there are a few exchanges, you can take it further and meet.
"I just thought that if he decides to, that's cool, and if he doesn't, that's cool too. And he hasn't. I just know that he was 30 at the time and was living somewhere in England. I was happy that he was 30 because it was nice imagining it was going to someone like one of my brothers."
Kate hopes that non-directive altruistic donation will one day be introduced in Ireland (currently, someone can only donate to a spouse, relative or friend).
"I remember when I woke up in the ward afterwards – I saw just how people are affected by kidney problems," she says. "The person opposite me had kidney problems, the woman opposite me had donated to her husband but it didn't work, and I saw people going up and down the corridor with drips.
"I knew I could get up, leave and recover, but these people were dealing with it day in, day out."