The Gift of Life - My Story Journal 1

My name is Stephen O’Boyle, I live in Dunloy, Co Antrim with my wife Fionnuala and our 3 sons , I am a self employed Painter and Decorator, just another average Joe Blogs.

Today’s date is 9th March 2022, and I’ve just had a call from Nicola, one of the Organ Donation coordinator’s from the City Hospital, she has just confirmed a date for my Kidney donation. It will take place in May all being well.

The above phone call was some 20 years in the making, the seed was planted in and around the year 2000. I watched an American TV program about a father who had donated a kidney to his son. The difference to the son’s life literally within days was amazing and I thought at that time if any of my sons or family member ever needed such a donation I wouldn’t hesitate, but then again who would?

Roll on a few years and a law change in N.Ireland, which allowed Altrustic Donation. I looked into donation at the time but  recovery then was 20 weeks. Having a young family and all the responsibilities that entailed, the timing just wasn’t right for me, so it was put on the back burner. As time moved on I revisited the possibility of donation on several occasions and even though the recovery time had reduced to 12 weeks with the introduction of keyhole surgery, there always seemed to be something to get in the way, but the thought and desire has never left me. I was convinced I would, at some stage, when the time was right, go for it.

Then in 2018 a major setback, I had a heart attack. My initial reaction on hearing the news was that any chance of donating a kidney was now gone. So I put it out of my mind. Disappointed and all as I was, I had to concentrate on my recovery. Up until my “cardiac event” I had been in excellent health and I’ve always kept fit. I enjoyed running on a regular basis. The consultant told me I had just been unlucky and that a clot had caused my heart attack. As a non smoker, non drinker, with no family history of heart disease it was a shock but the fact I was so fit helped my recovery, and I was back at work fairly quickly. I managed to come through the ordeal with thankfully minimal damage to the heart. After this, any lingering thoughts of donating a kidney were gone, and I thought never to be revisited.

Roll on April 2021, lockdown was in full swing. I had discovered Facebook, simply as a way to attend Mass. My faith is very important to me and our church services were live streamed, so I attended via that platform on a regular basis. I also started to listen to music and by way of very, very, many curious coincidences someone who was a complete stranger to me helped me via her music. She helped with  a very personal problem that I had carried with me for some time and her compassion and understanding helped me overcome that hurdle. That stranger’s name was  Bronagh.  The help I was given by that good person, who could have just passed by on the other side of the road and said nothing, reignited my interest in donation. Given that Bronagh, a stranger then, had helped me, I felt that perhaps I could help a stranger in return or at least try. It was then I finally decided that I would do what I had wanted to do for a long time and fill in the forms required, which I did more in hope than expectation. That was towards the end of April 21. The worst that could happen is that they might say ‘no.’ Happily I can report that Bronagh is no longer a stranger but is someone i count as a dear friend. I often say everyone has a story to tell. Unfortunately not everyone has someone to listen. I was fortunate that Bronagh was guided into my path and not only did she listen, she held out her hand to help.

Some 6 weeks later, on a Thursday evening, I received a phone call from an unknown number, I usually don’t reply to such numbers for fear they are scams, but on this occasion I answered. It was Erin, one of the Organ Donation coordinators from the City Hospital, and it was with no great surprise to me that I was told I had been rejected as a potential donor. There was an awkward pause. I was of course disappointed and Erin was quick to pick up on this. She started to explain that because of my heart disease i would not be suitable. This was news to me. The fact that I had heart disease. I explained to her that the consultant has sent me home telling me that I was to do what I had been doing before my heart attack and they would take care of the blood clots for me. The conversation lasted about 20 min and I felt that Erin really listened to what I had to say. To my surprise, or maybe just to get rid of me, she offered to speak to Dr Courtney, one of the consultant’s,  and relay what I had told her of my history. She said that Dr Courtney might ask me up of an interview or she just might say no and that I just wasn’t suitable. Erin said she would let me know either way. A few days later Erin, as good as her word rang back, and I was delighted to hear that Dr Courtney had agreed to give me a face to face interview and that a date would be arranged.

While waiting for my appointment with Dr Courtney, my wife Fionnuala, who worked in Clarke Clinic at the RBHSC, rang me at work to say one of the transport nurses had just come back to work after donating a kidney and she would like a chat. Phone number were exchanged and the call was made. That nurse’s name is Linda McCready. We had a long chat. Linda was able to put into words almost exactly what I had been feeling for years before.  I have only met Linda once, we have chatted on the phone and I would text her with any updates I have on my progress. She has become a bit of a hero of mine  and I’ve told her so. Her compassion and goodness were very much to the fore in our conversation and I can safely say Linda is yet another remarkable person I’ve met during this time.

Early June, a beautiful summer’s day, I made my way to the Renal Unit at the City Hospital. I went by train, really because I was expecting to be turned down again and I wasn’t going to be very good good company on the way home. I had been told by Erin that Dr Courtney was lovely. Apart from that I had no idea what to expect. As I sat in the waiting room my nerves were shot. I could feel my heart pounding, not good for someone with a heart condition. Goodness knows what my blood pressure was at this stage. I entered the room, there sat Dr Courtney. She stood and introduced herself. I took a deep breath and sat down. The next 40 min or so are a little blurred for me and probably bear little basis in fact but do I remember giving a detailed account of my medical history and the same for my family.  After that well, let’s just say the state in was in I wouldn’t be swearing an oath on anything else as far as the facts go.  I am sure this cant be right but my memory is of Dr Courtney giving me countless reasons why I shouldn’t donate a kidney, and at one stage I can remember holding my head in my hands and asking myself what was I doing here, but never the less I think I  was resolute and wasn’t going to be turned off if possible. In my head, it wasn’t going very well. To be frank in my head it was a disaster.  40 min in and I just wanted to go.

Then in the last 10 min of the interview I detected a slight softening from the eminent Dr,  a slightly more positive note was struck, and near the end of the interview Dr Courtney said that I would be, if successful, the first cardiac patient to donate in their unit and that she would send me to the Royal for cardiac screening and a few other tests. Those results would determine if we could move forward. I became a little emotional, but the important thing for me was still in the game. I left the Unit in an emotional state and in a slight daze. I needed time to collect my thoughts. It was a glorious evening.  I walked just down from the centre and sat on a summer seat for half an hour unable or unwilling  o move. I was physically and mentally drained. I said to someone after that, if Dr Courtney at any stage had produced a confession for me to sign admitting to the Great Train Robbery I would probably signed it!  Anything to get out of there. Looking back that is exactly what I needed, because I came away from that interview even more determined than before that I wanted to go ahead with the donation. To go forward and allow someone to retrieve a kidney from you there needs to be complete trust. Looking back at my interview, or rather now, what I prefer to call my conversation with Dr Courtney, I can say there is no one I trust more with my health and wellbeing than her.  I can honestly say she is one of the most impressive people I think I’ve ever met.

To spite my medical history, each stage of the process seemed to be getting more and more positive. I hadn’t at this stage told the boys, I wanted to wait until I knew for sure that I would be able to donate. I attended the Royal for Cardiac screening as per Dr Courtney’s request. It went well. The next stage was the one day assessment.

The appointment arrived, I had to be in the hospital for 7.30am, so my wife took me, and of course I was early. I prefer to be half an hour early than 1 min late. I made my way to 11 South, top of the Tower Block. There I met Aideen and Nicola. Up until then they had just been voices on the end of the phone. Now I had faces to put to those voices. O course typical of N.Ireland,  Aideen who lives in Armagh, knows my neighbours and I live in North Antrim…you couldn’t write it, Really in the bigger scheme of things we all live in one big village here. It would be remiss of me not to have a special word on the organ donation coordinators, Erin who I’ve never met but without her initially listening to me I wouldn’t have progressed. Aideen and Nicloa, these two have been exceptional, nothing has been too much trouble. Literally any query I’ve had has been dealt with professionally and with good humour. I cant speak highly enough of both of them. They have instilled in me a confidence for the whole team simply by their attitude and the professional way they go about their work.

The one day assessment took place in the Tower Block, it was my first time inside the main hospital, unsure of my bearings i managed to eventually make my way to ward 11 South, little did I know by 5pm I could have given guided tours of the whole place, given the number of times I was up and down the lifts and round and around the corridor’s, it was exhausting, but I was guided through the day by Nicola, the tests were varied and I met another consultant Dr Divine to discuss some of the results, again we had a full and frank discussion and the risks were again detailed to me and i was asked if I understood them, which I did. After each appointment I am sent out a report from whichever Dr I met on that day.  A couple of weeks after the one day assessment I received a report from Dr Divine, which basically said i was good to go pending a meeting with the surgeon, yet another hurdle!

By this stage I was confident I would be able to move forward, I had the support of my wife and the very few friends that I had confided in. Linda had been a great help thus far. It’s one thing to read a leaflet about organ donation, it’s invaluable to speak to someone who’s experienced it first hand. Linda has always been willing to speak and support me and even say a wee prayer for me, which has been a great comfort and something I appreciate beyond words. I also should mention Sean Martin, a friend of my wife’s brother in law. Sean donated a kidney and I had a long and invaluable chat with him, for which I am grateful, Sean still keeps in contact for updates on my donation journey.

So the time has come to tell the boys. Depending how the meeting with the surgeon goes of course. Early November another trip to the Renal Unit, early as usual, I’m standing outside the main doors. A gentleman comes forward with a pass and offers me the chance to stand inside on a cold morning. I am too early so politely refuse, he goes on about his business. In half an hour or so I go into the Center, take a seat and a few minutes later I am called forward by the  doorman from earlier, who it seems has been promoted in that short time from doorman to Surgeon! It is in fact Mr James McDaid, with whom i have my appointment, very impressive multi tasking by him! He was very easy to talk to, put me at ease right away before giving me all the facts and figures in very clear terms. I was given a detailed blow by blow account of the operation and the aftermath in terms of recovery. I was made aware of the risks involved, the risk of death being 1 in 3000. I asked if he was about to tell me he’s already performed 2999 transplants without incident. He thankfully got the joke and we had a good laugh.  Mr McDaid said he hoped that my donation would go into a pool which may allow multiple transplants to take place. His report confirmed that Mr McDaid was happy to proceed.  Now for the hard part……telling the boys

The following Sunday, after I received the latest report,  the boys were summonsed and sat down. I was very nervous about telling them, not sure of their reaction, but after some small talk I finally picked up the courage …all for nothing…they already knew. Fionnuala had told them months earlier, unknown to me of course.  Stupidly I had forgotten about all the appointment letters arriving with the City Hospital stamped all over them. Naturally the boys asked their mum if I was ok and so she told them, but they weren’t supposed to say how or even that they knew. Of course they shopped their mum without a second thought. Needless to say we had a laugh about it, and they were all supportive, so it worked out.

‘The run’ as they call it took place the last week in January. This is where you are matched, and to my delight a chain has been formed which means 3 donations will take place because of my donation. A date has been set with the other centres, so all I have to do now is wait and keep active and well.  I am excited and nervous at the same time but convinced I am doing the right thing for the right reason and with the amazing team in the City Hospital I am confident someone will benefit and lives will be changed….TBC

Stephen O’Boyle

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