Organ Donor Awareness Week takes place this week until April 30th.
There are currently around 600 people in Ireland waiting for a heart, lung, liver, kidney or pancreas transplant.
Organ Donor Awareness Week is normally the flagship fundraising event for the Irish Kidney Association (IKA) but, as most of the charity’s volunteers are transplant recipients or dialysis patients, they are severely immunocompromised and at huge risk of Covid-19.
It’s hoped that fundraising days can be staged later in the year instead. Nonetheless, Organ Donor Awareness Week aims to spread the message about the importance of becoming an organ donor. Members of the public are being encouraged to carry an organ donor card in order to show their commitment to organ donation.
As part of Organ Donor Awareness Week, public buildings across Ireland, including here in Waterford, are being illuminated in green, which is the internationally recognised colour which celebrates organ and tissue donation.
Here in County Waterford, Michael Mitchell (30) from Rathgormack is only too well aware of the importance of organ donation.
Michael and his aunt Laurena. Both are recovering well following surgery.
In 2007, aged 15, Michael was at a gathering of his local youth group when he experienced severe breathing difficulties. After undergoing hospital treatment, it was discovered he had kidney disease.
“I went from being a carefree teenager to suddenly having to take tablets and watch what I eat,” he explains.
Michael says he was fortunate to have been under Dr Frank Walker at UHW who managed his condition with ease.
“In one of my outpatient clinics he asked me about what I can’t do. I said ‘Nothing. I can do exactly what I want to do’. I was 15 and I lived my teenage years like everyone else.”
Michael continued with his education as normal and engaged in many extracurricular activities. Aged 16 he started working as a pool lifeguard and swim teacher in Carrick-on-Suir and went on to work as a beach lifeguard at both Clonea Strand and Ardmore.
“I continued to live my life as best I could,” says Michael, who even travelled to the US as part of the J1 programme, where he also worked as a lifeguard.
However, Michael’s most difficult years were between 2012 and 2017 after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease. Managing both conditions was a balancing act for Michael as what proved good for the kidneys was bad for his Crohn’s disease and vice versa.
However, Michael refused to let any of these impediments hold him back and went on to complete his third level education at University of Limerick and secure employment.
In July 2020, Michael’s kidneys started to fail and he began dialysis in early August. Undeterred, the following day Michael was in Mayo climbing Croagh Patrick. “That’s the attitude I took during my time on dialysis treatment,” he says.
Despite undergoing dialysis twice weekly, Michael believes he was very lucky as he didn’t experience too many negative impacts.
“I was able to continue my life as best I could,” he explains. ““Each person on dialysis is different. Some might have low energy or might be sick. After dialysis I could be playing golf or swimming in the sea. I was living as normal a life as I could.”
He praised the dialysis unit in University Hospital Waterford and says his main concern was working his treatment around his job with the Carne Group in the asset management industry. However, he didn’t have to worry as he was fully supported by his employers.
“My manager, the team and the company have been very accommodating and allowed me to work everything around my dialysis treatment,” he says.
The process of identifying a match for a kidney transplant began when Michael commenced dialysis.
His mother Bridget, who is the same blood group as Michael, underwent rigorous testing to determine her suitability as a donor. However, a small amount of plaque on an artery into her left kidney was discovered. It was so small that it didn’t merit any medication or intervention, but it ruled her out of the process as the medical team will not compromise the donor in any way.
“My right kidney was perfect, but they wanted the left,” explains Bridget.
Although disappointed after getting so close, she accepted the outcome.
“It happens to a lot of people,” says Bridget who adopted the attitude that “there must be someone better out there.”
She says Michael had huge support from both sides of their family, with a number of different family members coming forward as potential donors. Michael’s aunt Laurena from Galway offered to donate, and thankfully proved to be a match. Laurena discussed the issue with her husband and two teenage children who were all “hugely supportive”.
“My husband said, ‘wouldn’t it be an honour if it worked out Laurena?’ so I knew I had the support from the people I needed,” she says.
The process commenced in February 2021 and involved numerous appointments at Beaumont Hospital.
“In December, the disciplinary group met and approved me and gave me a date for the transplant. A week later, they rang to say it wasn’t going to happen due to Covid,” explains Laurena.
In January of this year, Laurena received a phone call from one of the transplant co-ordinators with a new transplant date at the end of that month.
“It was very intense and Covid made it even more intense. You’re constantly waiting to be told, ‘yes you can go to the next stage’,” she explains.
It wasn’t until both Michael and Laurena were wheeled down to surgery that both accepted the transplant was really going to happen. On January 31st, Michael received his new kidney and is now into week 10 of his recovery and progressing exceptionally well.
Michael says he experienced some pain during the first week following his transplant but this subsided once he returned home. He was back walking, swimming, playing golf and engaging in the activities he loves within two to three weeks post-surgery.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” he says.
Michael celebrating his 30th birthday with his mother Bridget, sister Kate and father Myles.
Despite it being such a life-changing process, Michael says he didn’t dwell on the magnitude of the transplant.
“I didn’t think about it once and I didn’t tell anyone about it until Laurena’s kidney was inside me,” he explains. “There are so many things that could have happened. You could be on your way down to surgery and it could be cancelled. I waited until after surgery to tell anyone. There was no point building myself up to then be disappointed.”
This outlook is reflective of Michael’s wider attitude to life.
“If you focus too much on the future you often forget to live day by day,” he says. “A lot of us have plans to start something tomorrow. If we have the means and the opportunity, we should start today rather than thinking too much about the future. There’s no point planning too much for the future – none of us know what might happen tomorrow.”
Throughout Covid-19 lockdowns, and despite the fact dialysis patients were among those most at risk, Michael remained positive and his zest for life remained intact.
“I’m lucky in that I’m content with what I have. I don’t need or want anything more,” he says. “I have everything I need inside my four walls and garden. I have my family, my dog Pumba, and anything else outside of that is a bonus for me. The activities I like were very accessible during Covid, such as golf, and swimming in the sea.”
For Michael, his current life is in sharp contrast to working everything around dialysis which lasted for four hours, two days a week for a year and a half.
“I’m living my life again and can do what I want in the evenings,” he says. “No words can describe what it feels like having my Tuesdays and Fridays back. Now I can go on holidays for a week without worrying about dialysis.”
Laurena is also recovering remarkably well and is keen to stress that being a donor doesn’t unduly impact on one’s life. She was admitted for surgery on a Sunday and discharged the following Saturday.
“I could have been discharged earlier but chose to stay an extra two days. I was out walking in the garden the day I came home and was setting targets every day,” she says, adding that she is back cycling, doing yoga, and recently completed a 7km run.
“It has an impact on your life for a number of weeks, but you take every stage knowing you will be getting better and looking at the benefits you give,” she says. “I am 90 per cent recovered and will be back to work within the next few weeks.”
Michael praised his consultants Dr Frank Walker and Dr Elizabeth Abernethy and the care he received from Dr Ian Robertson and the surgical team in Beaumont.
Laurena also paid tribute to her team of Dr Gordon Smith and Dr Ian Robertson, along with all the transplant co-ordinators and support team who worked with both Laurena and Michael on an ongoing basis.
Michael and friends pictured on Croagh Patrick. “I was able to continue my life as best I could,” he says.
Laurena says she has been overwhelmed by the messages of support she has received since the transplant took place.
“People acknowledge that you’re giving the gift of life,” she says. “Some people ask if it’s unusual for an aunt to donate to a nephew, but it can go beyond the core family. This widens the horizon and gives more opportunities to people on dialysis.”
She continues: “It’s a really thorough process to be approved and medically assessed. They look at every aspect and prepare you very well for what happens from the minute you go in to when you’re discharged. I have hyperthyroidism and asthma, so some people may think I mightn’t be a candidate, but there you go. If you’re medically approved it gives you confidence going in that you’re in a good state of health which will help with recovery.”
Laurena says concerns over loss of earnings shouldn’t deter people from coming forward and points out that financial assistance is available through the IKA if required, along with a range of other supports.
Bridget adds that the wider support network has a huge role to play – including the medical team, family, friends, and everyone in the wider community.
“Some people might keep it private, but we always talked about it and people would ask about Michael,” she says.
She describes him as being a man of “steel nerves”.
“Since the first day, his attitude has been really good,” says Bridget, who also paid tribute to Laurena.
“He always got on well with Laurena. She is so generous with her time, and she has made the ultimate gesture – there isn’t any gift of monetary value which could compensate.”
Michael was also on a deceased donor waiting list but may have had to wait another two to three years. This illustrates the importance of living donation, and is something which Michael and his family hope more people become aware of.
Michael is extremely grateful to Laurena at having received a transplant and aims to show people awaiting a transplant, or currently on dialysis, that hope exists.
“Everyone’s story can vary from person to person,” he says. “I have a great life, great family, friends, and job. There’s nothing I would change in my past that has brought me to where I am today.”
After years of trying to identify the correct treatment, his Crohn’s disease is also now under control.
Michael’s story is certainly inspirational, and the perfect antidote to the never-ending negative news cycle which we now seem to experience. Along with showcasing admirable resilience and determination, his story illustrates a loving bond between an aunt and a nephew and certainly provides hope to many others.
For more information on Organ Donor Awareness Week and the Irish Kidney Association, visit www.ika.ie
You can give your consent to organ donation by carrying an organ donor card or have your consent noted on your driving licence. Request a donor card by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org; freetext DONOR to 50050; lo call 1890 543639; download the Digital Organ Donor Card App; or by post to Freepost, Donor House, Irish Kidney Association, Park West, Dublin 12