Few acts in life can be considered as selfless as organ donation. Healthy organs, once transplanted, can transform the life of someone who is ill, or provide deep consolation to a bereaved family, knowing that their loved one’s death helped to save the life of another. As Organ Donor Awareness Week approaches, April 2-9, SEAMUS ENRIGHT spoke with two local families whose lives have been touched by organ donation.
“You do end up asking why me? Why is it happening to me? It’s only natural to ask those kind of questions,” explains kidney recipient Richard Conlon from Cootehill.
Richard was aged just 10 when he was first diagnosed with kidney problems. In his late teens and early twenties, a time when many of his peers where beginning to live their own lives to the fullest, he could only watch on as he began dialysis treatment.
“You have a very poor quality of life,” the sixty-one year old explains. “If you’re in renal failure you naturally don’t have the same levels of energy, the same get up and go. Little things people take for granted a person in renal failure just won’t have the same energy to keep up.
“It was at a time in my life when I should have been fit and well. Even as a kid, one of the manifestations of renal failure was high blood pressure, so I was sidelined from taking an active interest in sports.”
It wasn’t until 1979-80, when Richard, a native of Ardee, Co Louth was already 19-months into dialysis treatment that his younger sister Aileen came forward as a suitable potential donor.
Richard, who retired from his post at the Department of Agriculture last year, tells the Celt that the impact from the transplant was almost instantaneous. He accepts his life might have been very different were it not for his transplant which followed dialysis treatment at the old Jervis Street Hospital, Dublin.
“The improvement was rapid,” says Richard. “Almost the next day after the transplant even. Your kidneys are there to clean your system, so basically it’s filtering your blood from waste, and because your blood is not beintg cleaned it can’t carry sufficient oxygen and other materials to keep you well.
“The best way I can put it is if the oil filter in your car isn’t working, it’s the same for a person, the engine will just stop. So when I received the transplant, it was amazing the difference it made, how much better I felt by it.”
He describes the donation as “an amazing gift” from his then 22-year-old sister, and says: “It changed my life. I’ll always be thankful for that.”
A member of the Cavan Rugby Club Male voice choir and branch secretary with the local Cavan/Monaghan branch of the Irish Kidney Association, Richard laughs when people often try put a monetary value on such vital intervention.
“Really it’s incalculable, because of the change it makes, and the effect it has had on giving me a relatively normal life. I still have regular check-ups and all of that, every three-months to Beaumont, but nothing compared to the life it possibly would have been had I not had the transplant. Again, back to the car, you have to service it to keep it on the road.”
At present there are 60 patients receiving dialysis treatment at Cavan General Hospital, and 450 others attending various clinics for transplant, pre-dialysis and dialysis. The focus of Organ Donor Awareness Week is to raise awareness about the ongoing and ever-increasing demand for organ transplants which relies on the public for organ donation. The 2016 national campaign will feature RTÉ news presenter Vivienne Traynor encouraging the public to support organ donation.
Married father-of-two Richard understands the reluctance which might spring to mind in some people’s heads when the grisly notion of organ donation is first considered.
“The very basic thing is that all of a person’s organs are of no use to them once they’ve passed away. Especially when you consider that they could be used to help so may other people,” says Richard. “From your eyes and corneas to the kidneys, heart, lungs, skin even. If you have lived a good life, and unfortunately there are tragic circumstances in which young people lose their life, it can often be of comfort for a family knowing it doesn’t just end there, but that their life and memory lives on by helping one or maybe several others. It is an incredible gift, that can’t be underestimated,” says Richard.
'Very giving person’
One local family that understands the plight all to well is that of the late Kathleen Brady who suffered from a fatal aneurysm in July 2011.
Daughter Una Smith (28) remembers how, after Kathleen developed another bleed on the brain and consultants explained there was little the medical team could do, that her first reaction was to laugh when a nurse at the hospital mentioned the option of organ donation.
“I started laughing because it all came back to me the conversation I had with our mam a few year before.
“She said to me, 'Why bring me to the grave, what are your organs going to do for you when your dead?’ She’d also say whatever doesn’t work after that 'send it to the scientists’. She always said it in a kind of serious way, but laughing at the idea of it as well so I thought nothing more off it, not until the nurse said it to us that day. In the end, that decision helped others live the life that mammy left behind.”
The family’s decision was made all the more poignant in that their cousin Stephen Smith (37) from Castletara had received no less than eight false calls whilst waiting for a double lung transplant which ultimately came in November 2013.
A total of three people benefited from the family’s selfless decision to donate their mother Kathleen’s organs. Her two kidneys and pancreas were donated.
“It’s not often you hear both sides of the organ donation story in the one family. I mean, we’ve seen the benefit it’s had on Stephen and his life, and we know of how mammy’s donation has gone on to help someone else.”
Una, one of nine siblings, and a student at Cavan Institute says: “Mammy was always a very giving person, and always helped out people in need. We have a letter from a man, because the whole organ donation network is anonymous, it’s unsigned, but he received one of her kidneys and it’s quite funny because in it he writes 'every time I go pee I’m go grateful’, we all just thought that was very, very funny.”
But like Richard’s story, and that of Stephen too, Organ Donor Card carrying Una says it just goes to show how much of a difference signing your name on the dotted line can make in sometimes the most unfortunate of circumstances.
“At times like this, coming up to Organ Donor Awareness Week I wouldn’t think so much of her, more the people she has helped. It can happen to any one of us, anybody may need a transplant for whatever reason so it’s great to know that our mother’s passing has at the very least helped someone else live on to have a fuller life. She said it herself 'Why bring something to the grave when it can help someone else have a better life?’ It makes sense to me,” says Una.
Throughout Organ Donor Awareness Week IKA volunteer collectors will be distributing organ donor cards and selling forget-me-not flower emblems (the symbol of transplantation) in towns and villages around the country.
The Irish Kidney Association meanwhile has introduced another fundraising technique, whereby members of the public can text “kidney” to 50300 and €2 will be donated from your mobile phone account.
Organ Donor Cards can also be obtained by phoning the Irish Kidney Association LoCall 1890 543639 or Freetext the word DONOR to 50050. Visit websitewww.ika.ie
It is now also possible to store an organ donor card, the 'ecard’ on Smart mobile phones by simply searching for 'Donor ECard’ at the IPhone Store or Android Market Place.