Transplant and dialysis team eye golden chance

More than 30 athletes are set to travel to the transplant and dialysis championships in Krakow, Poland


Almost exactly a year ago John McAleer was on the golf course when he got a call from the transplant team at Belfast City Hospital telling him to go there immediately. “I was 75 years old,” he says, still seemingly surprised that he should be so lucky.

The retired university lecturer had been on dialysis for five years and always assumed that, given his age, he would not be considered an ideal candidate for a transplant. “And I did not wake up every morning wondering will I get the call today. If it happened, fine,” he says.

This week as McAleer packs his bags and prepares to head off with the 33 other athletes representing Ireland at the eighth European Transplant & Dialysis Sports Championships in Krakow, Poland, he constantly stresses how lucky he has been.

“All this happened to me late in life,” he explains. “Others have endured [kidney problems] from the age of 12 or 13. I feel so lucky that modern medicine and technology have done so much for me. I have been around a long time and I saw what was there in the 1940s, and the transition in what medicine can do”.

Keen golfer A former lecturer in philosophy at the University of Ulster, at 76 he is the oldest Irish athlete

– the youngest is 16 – taking part in the Krakow games, which run from August 16th to 23rd. McAleer, who lives at Whiteabbey near Belfast, won medals as a dialysis patient at the previous biennial European championship. Golf is his main sport and this time there is a feeling that he is doing it for his donor and donor family as well as for the team.

“It is always there, that awareness of the generosity of someone who thought this would be a good thing to do,” says McAleer. “You don’t know the person or their family but you never stop appreciating what they did.” There are 29 transplant recipients on the 34-strong Irish team and between them they have enjoyed 273 extra years, so far, thanks to their donors.

The Irish Kidney Association (IKA) says there are 2,216 people in Ireland living with a functioning kidney transplant, which means a lot of extra years between them.

Former Irish table tennis international Mary Sheehan from Parteen, Co Clare, is one of five dialysis patients representing Ireland. “Last Christmas I did not think I would live, so this is a dream come true,” says Sheehan, who is 59. She developed kidney problems 26 years ago but has been on dialysis for only a year. “As soon as I started dialysis I got my energy back,” she says. Despite having to devote about four hours to dialysis every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she sees it as “a new lease of life”.

“I am really looking forward to the games although I was bit nervous about the idea of having dialysis when I am abroad, but the IKA organises it for us,” says Sheehan. Some day she hopes to have a transplant and there are many determined to help her. Her daughter Grace, as well as a sister and a close friend, have all volunteered to be donors.

“But I would not be able to have a transplant just yet. I was very, very sick at Christmas – I actually had a heart attack in the ICU – but I am doing fine now,”she says.

During her 20s, she suffered several miscarriages and her first daughter, Hazel, died when she was just nine weeks old. Not long after Grace was born, 26 years ago, doctors started to talk about dialysis.

“I went to Lourdes when Grace was a baby and when I came back the doctor said ‘You are a walking miracle’,” she recalls. A few years ago when her energy started to flag, Sheehan, who worked in administration at the University of Limerick until 2009, knew her kidneys were failing.

“Now I am looking forward to being in the transplant pool. And I am thrilled to bits to be playing for Ireland again. The last time I represented Ireland in table tennis was 30 years ago”.

On the list

People are always fascinated at how doctors adapt to the role of patient. But Ron Grainger, former consultant urologist at St James’s Hospital and Tallaght Hospital, shrugs off any suggestion that the gods were being mischievous when they mapped out a transplant for him. During his training at Jervis Street Hospital in 1985/1986 he performed donor retrievals and kidney transplants and says he already knew at that time that he would almost certainly require a transplant later in life.

When he was studying medicine at Trinity College in the 1960s , his father became the second person to have a kidney transplant in Northern Ireland.

Throughout his career as a consultant urologist, Grainger was responsible for the management of many patients with end-stage renal failure. By 2003 he found himself in a similar position . “Thankfully, I was on the transplant list for only nine months, and peritoneal dialysis for one month, prior to receiving my kidney transplant”.

His quality of life improved dramatically after the transplant. “ It changed from being constantly fatigued and feeling rotten most of the time to a life of new vigour and energy and enabled me to carry on with my very busy job with no physical hindrances.”

Now semi-retired, he stresses that being a urologist was not a problem. “I put my trust entirely in the doctors and nurses who were looking after me and . . . simply became the patient.”

‘Celebration of wellness’ Now retired from public practice and working part-time at the Beacon hospital, he sees his participation in the games as “a celebration of wellness”. Like

McAleer he will be competing at golf in Krakow and he will also be a competitor in the 5km walk in the 60- 69 years of age category.

“Whilst I played rugby and competed in athletics at a reasonably high level at school, I really haven’t engaged in any athletic activities for over 40 years other than playing golf,” says Grainger. “ I have been trying to put in the kilometres of training for the walk which I have found pretty tough,” he added, joking that what he really needs is more golf time to boost his fitness levels.

Almost 500 participants from 30 European countries will take part in the games. Every athlete has received a kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas or bone marrow transplant, or is on dialysis.

For Grainger, this adventure is more than just a celebration of his own good health. “More importantly, it is a way of honouring my donor and their family and a way of thanking them for the gift of life they have bestowed on me”.

For an organ donor card, freetext the word DONOR to 50050;; See http://trans

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