My liver was being rejected by my body

 

TOWARDS THE end of 1991, I played in the Cork minor county final with my local club, Carbery Rangers. I had finished school, but like any student, I was trying to figure out what to do in life.

I suppose I started to experience tiredness at that stage and had no appetite. This went on for about 12 to 18 months really.

I was referred to Cork Regional Hospital. At first they diagnosed colitis and I went for an operation to sort that out in late 1992.

But I started to get jaundiced and sick again around Christmas. I went back to hospital in Cork, but they couldn’t really find anything wrong with me.

In January 1993, I was referred to St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin.

This was actually my first time to Dublin. I knew I must be in a spot of bother if I was being sent up there.

I remember my consultant saying, “You’re a very sick boy, but we’re going to try to find out what’s wrong”.

I had two weeks in Dublin where they did every kind of test – blood tests, liver biopsies, everything. I didn’t want my family there as it would have been stressful for them, so it was all phone calls.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with auto-immune hepatitis, a disease where the body is “rejecting” its own liver. They said it was likely I would need a liver transplant at some stage.

This was a shock. The only transplant I’d ever heard of was Colin McStay who was on the Late Late Show when I was a boy. Coincidentally, on my way to Vincent’s on that first day, the front page of the paper was all about Ireland’s first liver transplant. I read it in the ambulance on the way up. Little did I know it was ahead of me.

When they told me first, to be honest, I wasn’t keen on it. I just wanted to get over what was wrong with me. I was really quite terrified about the whole thing.

They gave me medication and, about a month later, things had started to improve. In six weeks, I was back at home and got well very quickly. I had check-ups in Dublin every three months. In six months, I was back on the pitch playing under-21 football with Carbery Rangers.

I started coaching football in the local school and began work as sacristan in Rosscarbery Church. Things were getting back to normal. In 1999, I married Dee, who was deputy principal at the school where I worked.

By Christmas 2004 though, I was starting to feel unwell again. I had regular nosebleeds or would cough up blood. I had an operation in 2005 to remove varices – veins that go no where, so when pressure builds up, they bleed.

By summer 2006, the team I coach, Mount St Michaels in Rosscarbery, won a county, Munster and All-Ireland title. It was brilliant, but I wasn’t feeling great again.

By 2007, it was rock bottom. I had no energy, no interest in sport, I couldn’t walk or cycle.

I was back in Dublin again in October and the consultant said, “It’s going to have to be a transplant now”. In November, I had tests and on December 13th, I was told I was going on the transplant list.

To be honest, I knew from 1993 it would happen. But when someone sits on the bed and says, “Mike, you need a transplant”, it’s still a shock.

I was really quite sick and they told me I was on the top of the list. If there was one available, I would get it. They said, “We have two months to get you sorted”.

Your mind starts to wander. I knew that if I was to live, I’d need a liver from someone else. You think there’s someone out there today, they’re working or they’re at college, and something will happen to them. Something they or their families didn’t expect.

It was Christmas Eve 2007 when I got the call. My brother-in-law drove me and Dee to Dublin. The gardaí organised a relay to get us there fast.

I didn’t get definite word until two hours before. I said goodbye to my wife. I didn’t know if I’d see her again. I was confident in my surgeon, but also I felt I had got an extra 14-15 years, so I had been very lucky.

The whole community in Rosscarbery was behind me. There was a Christmas Eve midnight Mass on the night of my transplant. They lit a candle for me and they said they’d keep it lighting until I came home.

I went in to surgery at 6pm and was out at 2.30am. I woke up on Christmas morning in intensive care. I felt okay, I remember watching Sky news and talking to Dee, and I remember being shaved on Christmas day.

The next two or three days were tough, then I had quite a severe rejection of the liver and was very ill for about four weeks. Between the anti-rejection drugs, the tiredness and pain, I don’t recall too much.

Five weeks later, I was at home in Cork. It’s then you start to really think about your donor. I didn’t go for counselling, I felt I wanted to deal with it myself and Dee was great support.

Within three weeks of being home, I was back at the school training the team again and was back at work.

This week, I’m competing in the Transplant and Dialysis Games in Dublin, in shot putt, badminton and darts. The games have changed my life really. They’ve given me the same energy and confidence I had before I was ill.

Now, it’s not the big things but the little things that are special. To be able to get up without pain, dress myself, walk or cycle.

I don’t agree that organ donation should be compulsory. I’d ask people to make an active choice. This takes the burden off your family at what will already be a difficult time for them.

When I see what the transplant has given me, I’m so grateful. My next goal is to get back on the pitch playing soccer, even just the once to show that as a person with a liver transplant, this is what you can do.

In conversation with Joanne Hunt

Life line transplants on the increase

The first liver transplant took place in 1963 in Denver, Colorado. In the 1960s and 1970s, liver transplants were performed in only a few centres with poor results.

From the 1980s, improved immunosuppressant drugs were able to suppress the body’s rejection of the new liver and success rates improved.

Since Ireland’s programme began at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin in 1993, more than 500 liver transplants have taken place.

Figures released in January show that organ donation and transplants are on the increase. In 2009, 154 donor referrals of all organ types took place, an 8 per cent increase on 2008.

Liver transplant numbers increased from 59 in 2008 to 68 last year.The figures reflect an increased awareness in Irish society of the importance of organ donation.

The Irish Kidney Association says there are currently more than 600 people on the waiting list for organs.

To find out more about organ donation, contact the Irish Kidney Association on 1890-543639, ika.ie

SECOND CHANCE: ATHLETES CELEBRATE ‘THE GIFT OF LIFE’ AT EUROPEAN TRANSPLANT AND DIALYSIS GAMES

Seventy-two Irish men and women are showing that “life goes on” after adversity, when they participate in the 6th European Transplant and Dialysis Games, which continue in Dublin this week.

More than 350 athletes from 24 European countries have gathered in Dublin to celebrate “the gift of life”.

Irish team captain Michael Dwyer, who had a kidney transplant 11 years ago, says that by taking part, the athletes honour the donors and their families who have given them a second chance.

“We do not forget them,” says Dwyer.

He said that people who have transplants get better as they get fitter. “I believe the fitter we get, the less medication we need,” he said.

“Hopefully by having the games in Dublin for the first time we draw attention to the fact that life goes on after surgery as well as getting the message out there that those who can find the generosity at times of huge personal loss to donate organs, can save several lives.”

Sporting legend Eamonn Coghlan recently paid tribute to the participants. “You have all fought huge personal battles to just get to the starting-line,” he says.

“You have displayed not only your love of sport, but your love of life, and you are an inspiration to all of us.”

The athletes come from all over Ireland and range in age from 18 to 72 and for many of them this will be their first time competing at this level. The games continue until August 15th.

James Reynolds

James Reynolds from Tallaght, Dublin, signed up for the games even before he had his kidney transplant last year. “I lost four and a half years of my life. I don’t intend to waste another minute,” says the 23 year old.

He is participating in the darts, petanque (also known as French boules) and ball throw – “exactly what it says on the tin”.

Reynolds had his transplant in Beaumont hospital in July 2009 and wanted to take part in transplant sports last year but was advised that it might be too soon after surgery. He had been on dialysis three days a week, each one a four-hour session, for four and half years.

“I could not even walk up a stairs without getting breathless before the transplant,” he explains.

Reynolds had problems since he was a baby but his condition dramatically worsened when he was 18.

“I only had 11 per cent function in my kidneys. I was low in confidence for a long time but I always knew that I would get through it.”

Getting to represent Ireland in the games underlines for Reynolds how his life has changed. “I am going to really enjoy it.”

Seamus Eager

Former Shamrock Rovers footballer Seamus Eager, from Kilcoole, Co Wicklow, had a heart transplant just over a year ago at the Mater Hospital.

He reckons that without it he had two to three months to live. “There was a gun to my head, ” he says.

A month ago the 61 year old returned from the European Heart and Lung Transplant Games in Sweden with two gold medals in golf and table tennis.

“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and the enormity of what happens hits me,” says Eager who, before the transplant, managed under-age and senior soccer teams in Greystones.

“It’s hard to imagine that they took out my old heart and there is a new one working away inside me.”

Before the transplant Eager says he could only walk about 20 yards without feeling breathless. “I have been given a second chance and that’s why I keep stressing the importance of being a donor,” he says.

“There are 25 Irish people waiting for hearts today and about 600 hoping for transplants.”

Eager, an auctioneer, is hoping for gold in the golf again this week.

Cathriona Charles

Cathriona Charles from Mohill, Co Leitrim, was never sporty, so she isn’t pretending to have turned into a super athlete since her kidney transplant 20 years ago.

This is her first games and as good a way as any to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the life-saving surgery, she believes.

“The only times I have been in hospital since the transplant were for the births of my two children ,” she says.

Charles will be competing in the 3km walk, 10-pin bowling and petanque.

A native of Aughavas, she says she was encouraged to participate in the games “because it is important to give something back and to encourage other people having transplants by letting them see what is possible”.

“I am very, very well now. I feel I can do anything – the transplant has not limited me in any way,” says the Leitrim woman, who developed kidney problems when she was just 12 and who was on dialysis for three years until she had surgery at 19.

Sandra Doyle

Sandra Doyle from Beaumont, Dublin, says that her liver transplant in 2003 has opened doors and given her experiences she would never have dreamed of.

She won silver medals at the World Games in Canada in 2005 and the last European Games in Germany in 2008, and is now thrilled to be participating in her own country.

“It is such an honour and privilege to represent Ireland and I can’t even try to explain the thrill of walking behind the flag at the opening ceremony, especially at home,” she says.

Doyle worked right up to her transplant, but says that in the last few weeks she literally could not lift a cup.

“I had been ill for more than 10 years on and off, but it was serious for the last two years or so, and I was on a waiting list for just four months. The waiting is agonising.

“Every time a call comes through the phone you think maybe this is it, and then when it does happen you have very mixed emotions because, of course, you are thinking of the donor.”

She is taking part in the badminton and petanque events this week and says it’s all about celebrating “the greatest gift of all, the gift of life”.