Tuesday 17 September 2019

Everyone has the opportunity to give the gift of hope and life to a latter-day hero and patriot

We need to pack an Organ Donor Card in our wallets, purses and pockets. That little card gives us the power to save lives

Alan Gleeson, a Garda stationed in Coolock, with his girlfriend Mairin. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography
Alan Gleeson, a Garda stationed in Coolock, with his girlfriend Mairin. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography
Billy Keane

Billy Keane

There he was young Alan Gleeson, in his green Irish singlet, at the starting blocks, waiting for ready, set and then the gun.

It was 2004 at the World Transplant Games in Slovenia and Alan was flanked by a Spanish first division soccer player and a German international cyclist.

"And what did you do?" they asked.

Alan had to think for a second and then it came to him. "I won a North Kerry C Championship with the Listowel Emmets."

It was a long and winding road to Slovenia. He has had kidney trouble for most of his life. When Alan was a small boy he tried so hard to keep up to the pace of the game. And if Alan couldn't keep up, it is also true to say he never gave up. Alan was very fast but he began to suffer too much for a small lad. The energy drained out of him through his colander kidneys.

It was heartbreaking to watch a kid who was so enthusiastic lasting only a few minutes before dizziness set in and there were times, every time really, when he had to get sick on the side of the pitch.

Alan was 16 when he was told there was a kidney waiting for him in Dublin. His dad Sean, a taxi driver at the time, was on a bus-driving job in Limerick and met his boy on the banks of the Shannon.

This was to be Sean's toughest taxi drive ever. It looked like the dad and his boy might not make it on time. The traffic flow was like treacle. Back then there were no mobiles. Time seemed to go faster than the clock. Transplants have tight deadlines. The dad asked a roadside garda for help.

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There was a police escort to the hospital and Alan was fitted with his new kidney. Says Alan: "I remember thanking the gardaí at the entrance to Beaumont before heading to the ward and thinking, 'I'm definitely going to be a Boy in Blue one day!'"

I was there the day he won that C title. By then the skinny kid had grown up in to a strong man. His colleague Shane O'Driscoll remembers Alan was wearing a protective brace around the kidney but, says O'Driscoll, "Alan got stuck in."

The kidney gave the young lad a new life. There was soccer, football and running. It was as if Alan was making up for all the time he lost out on when he was a small boy. Alan writes of those days in the brave, eloquent and honest speech he made at the launch of Organ Donor Week which ends today.

"I remember for the first time in my 16 years on this earth I felt fantastic, energetic, excited at life and for the first time looking forward to the future.

"Shortly after my transplant, I remember clearly thinking I would repay my donor by doing something good with my life. To thank him or her for giving me this gift, this energy. My life started from there.

"I tried out college and the usual jobs route but in my mind I felt An Garda Síochána was my path. I applied and despite the usual 'hurlers on the ditch' telling me I wouldn't get in because of my transplant, I told them I would get in because of my transplant. Lo and behold, this September will see me serving 10 years in the job."

Alan was out on the beat back then. He had trained in martial acts with his friend Mike Flanagan and he was well able to look after himself. Garda colleagues say he never asked for any leeway when there was physical danger. Garda Alan Gleeson kept his word to the donor he never met.

The new kidney failed in September 2014. There were operations and now Alan is on dialysis. Alan was left without a functioning kidney. He tells it as it is.

"I felt as if my whole world had collapsed around me. I remember lying there thinking, 'Is my job going to be gone? How will my family cope with the news? Am I even gonna survive this?' I'll never forget that day and night for as long as I live - the pain and grief are indescribable. Thankfully, I have a fantastic doctor in Dr Declan De Freetis who is very supportive to me and went about explaining the process of dialysis to me and what lay ahead."

Dialysis can bring on many health problems such as heart trouble and diabetes. As Alan says, "Dialysis keeps you alive but it keeps you down."

His partner Mairin is an assistant primary school principal. Her love and the support of his family keep him going. Alan's colleagues in the gardaí have backed him to the hilt. He spends most of his time behind a desk now.

The dialysis can only keep the man going for so long. Alan desperately needs a new kidney . But it's not easy to get one to suit.

Alan explains: "The antibodies from the first kidney remain in the body and attack the new kidney. Everything to do with the second transplant has to go perfectly. I'm just hoping and praying." We hear he's not in the best of shape at the moment. But he doesn't give in.

It took a while for Alan to get up the courage to come forward to tell his story. By nature he is a quiet lad but he has a sense of duty to the people who are waiting on a transplant. Especially the kids. The garda in him reinforces the loyalty to our citizens and his pledge of service to his country.

Physically, Alan is suffering his share with terrible tiredness from the endless sessions on the dialysis machine. He is honest about the struggle to keep optimistic and happy.

"For me, the hardest part of it all is the mental health side. It can be very tough to accept all the changes and restrictions. You can have very hard and dark days trying to cope and think, 'Is this ever going to end?'"

I'm so proud when he recalls a line I spoke that "if the good times do not last forever, well then neither do the bad."

Makes this job worthwhile.

Those who know Alan best say that inside he is still the small boy who went on the field to give his all for however long he was going to last.

There's a hope there transcending his suffering. He transfuses his decency to all those who are near him just by being near him.

Back the street from where I'm writing, Alan's mother Julie is collecting for Organ Donor Week on a bitterly cold April day. The national collection brings out the best in us and now we need to give some more even if it is posthumously.

In our little town, we are all praying for Alan Gleeson. Praying that when the phone rings the news will be there's a rare matching kidney donated by a caring person to save a good man's life.

We will leave the last words with Alan.

"I would urge people to carry an Organ Donor card and talk to their loved ones about it. A lot of people just pick up the card, sign it, stick it in their wallet and think no more about it. But please ... just stop and think. You are actually carrying the Gift of Life in your wallet. That little card you never think about, is the little flicker of hope for me, for everyone on a transplant list ...waiting ... their life on hold."

Organ donor cards are available from pharmacies, surgeries and The Irish Kidney Association

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