Organ donation has come a long way in the last few decades (although not long enough, if Grey's Anatomy is to be believed). People carry organ donor cards or they’ve checked the box on their driver’s licence. But back in the 1970s, things were a lot murkier when it came to getting a new kidney, as Edel O’Brien told Ray D’Arcy. The Mullingar woman was only 9 years old when she was given her mother’s kidney in a life-saving operation:
"I spent the bones of a year in hospital, coming and going, but I was mostly in the hospital. And eventually, December of that year, my mother was able to give me a transplant."
Edel was given a new lease of life from the kidney her mother was able to give her, but all organ donations have limited life spans and, because she was so young when she got a new kidney, Edel was still only in her fifties when the kidney she’d got from her mother began to show signs of failure. That’s when Laura – Edel's daughter – stepped in. But before we get onto that, let’s go back to the transplant state of play in Ireland in the late 1970s:
"The facilities for dialysis were very poor. There was a branch in Castlebar and in Cork and in Dublin, but like, where branches now are everywhere, it was very difficult for people to get transport to get dialysis a few times a week and it just wasn’t possible for a lot of people."
Edel was told at the time of her transplant that doctors wanted to see the new kidney getting her to adulthood. Nowadays, they generally tend to say that a transplant should last 10-15 years. So Edel got lucky with her mother’s kidney in more ways than one:
"My kidney was such a match that I was just extremely lucky and it did last the length of time, you know. In the last number of years it was going downhill, you know, it started going down. I kept going and I was lucky enough that I wasn’t on dialysis much."
Around 4 years ago it became clear that Edel would have to start the search for another new kidney. That search – made more difficult by the Covid pandemic – took more than a year, but when it ended it was, once again for Edel, a family affair. Daughter Laura proved to be a match and was more than willing to give her mum her kidney:
"We’ve always known that this would come. It was never, I guess, in our house a big surprise. We always knew that this day would likely come and absolutely, it was a no-brainer for me to put my hand up. As I always say, it was her kidney, she grew it, I was just giving it back to her."
That’s certainly one way of looking at it. When the appointed hour finally came for the transplant, after much Covid-related delays, Laura drove Edel to Beaumont hospital, then went home and cleaned the kitchen floor (she wasn’t going to be home for a few weeks, was her logic, according to Edel) and then came back to the hospital to prepare for the surgery. And on Valentine’s Day first Laura, then Edel were were wheeled into the operating theatre, as Edel recounted:
"So once the kidney is out, then it’s checked to see everything’s normal and then I was brought in and put under anasthetic and then my operation."
The first thing Laura wanted to know after the surgery was how her mother was doing:
"The Sunday for me going in, I was the healthiest person in Beaumont that night, you know like, I was so healthy going in and then Monday I went in for the operation and the operation went well, I came back up and I was full of meds, but the first thing I wanted to know was was Mum ok and they were able to let me know that she was passsing urine perfectly at that point, so everything had worked straightaway."
The effect of a kidney transplant on someone who is in kidney failure is pretty much immediate, as Edel explained:
"It just works, yeah. It’s like night and day, that’s the only way to describe a transplant. That you’re just, your skin, everything just changes. It’s new blood in the system, as I call it and it just works. It is like a lightbulb switch. The feeling is fantastic."
You can hear Ray’s full chat with Edel and Laura by going here.
This is Organ Donor Awareness Week – see The Irish Kidney Association for more details.