The NHS medics who’ve gone beyond the call of duty – by giving a kidney to save a total stranger’s life
For these six healthcare professionals, it’s not enough to spend their working days trying to help others — they have gone one step further by donating one of their kidneys to a stranger.
There is a desperate shortage of donor organs, but it’s particularly acute for kidneys: every year around 250 people die on the waiting list for a kidney transplant.
In 2007 the law in the UK was changed to allow altruistic kidney donation — the first donor, Kay Mason, a mother of four from Hertfordshire, successfully donated to a woman in her 40s from Sheffield.
Altruistic living donations can work well for longer than those from deceased donors, according to figures from NHS Blood and Transplant.
‘It’s a relatively easy process, although it does take time — with approximately nine months of testing,’ says Bob Wiggins, chair of trustees at the charity Give A Kidney. ‘People also have to take time off work in order to do these tests, and then after the operation.’
There are some risks, although Lisa Burnapp, a nurse and president of the British Transplantation Society, likens these to the risk of appendix removal.
‘Most complications are minor and include infections or bleeding,’ she says. ‘More serious risks include damage to major blood vessels and organs such as the colon, lungs and spleen that are near to the kidneys.’
(Most people who have donated a kidney lead a normal, healthy life afterwards.)
There is also the psychological impact, ‘if things do not work out as expected, particularly if the transplant does not work and has to be taken out’, she adds — or the donor never hears from the recipient. ‘It’s important that altruistic donors consider all of these.’
There Have been 983 altruistic kidney donations so far (the rates are rising): 672 have donated directly to one recipient, the others entered a chain, which means more people can be helped. Here, the first person donates their kidney to a recipient on the waiting list; the recipient’s ‘partner’ (their spouse, family or friend) then donates their kidney to the next recipient, and so on.
Donor chains — also known as sharing schemes — only exist for kidneys and there is a maximum of three donors and three recipients in each chain.
Here, these extraordinary healthcare professionals tell their stories . . .
I READ OF A GIRL ON DIALYSIS — I WAS A PERFECT MATCH
SURINDER Sapal, 39, a radiographer at leeds Teaching hospitals NhS Trust, lives in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, with husband harmit, 44, an assembly worker, and their daughters, aged 13 and nine. She donated a kidney in September 2019. She says:
I SAW an appeal that a three-yearold girl in the North east needed a kidney and it really pulled at my heartstrings.
She had been born with polycystic kidneys [where cysts form in the kidneys, causing them to swell and malfunction] and was going to die before the age of five without a transplant because her blood pressure was not coping with dialysis.
As the mum of two daughters — one of them only three years older than this child — I could only imagine the agony her mother was going through.
Her parents weren’t a match, so it was going to have to be a stranger who saved her life. I thought about my own daughters in that situation and hoped that someone would have done it for them.
So I emailed the Living organ Donation team at the hospital: the fact that I was the same Indian background as the little girl was very important because it would give a better chance of a match. I also knew that an adult- sized kidney could be used for a child.
A few weeks later, in January 2019, I got a call to come in for blood tests.
The following month I was told that I was a good match: it felt a bit surreal — I had wanted to help, but I had not actually imagined that I would be the one. I had not told my husband, Harmit, and he was speechless.
He said that we had an extended family and what if any of them needed a kidney in the future, or if the operation went wrong.
But I was determined to proceed because I could understand how that little girl’s mother felt, and I knew I was in good hands.
After tests, the surgery was booked for the day after my birthday. As I put on my hospital
gown, I was shaking with nerves, and it was a big relief when I woke up.
I was given lots of morphine to help with the pain but discharged myself after just one night.
The surgeon said it was the first time he had ever had a patient do this — normally, they stay in for two nights but I couldn’t wait to get back to my own bed.
For the first two weeks I felt like I had been in a car crash: I was bent double with internal pain.
However, I was then able to start walking small distances and drop the children at school, and I was back at work after two months.
I got a card from the little girl’s mum three weeks after the transplant and we met up three weeks after that.
Harmit drove us to Newcastle upon Tyne to their house, and her whole family were waiting outside, including her grandparents, aunts and uncles; ten people in total.
I hugged her mum straight away. We stayed for about three hours and it was amazing to see the little girl doing so well — she’d had her first proper meal ever two days after the transplant.
It has totally changed her life.
We now meet once a year and it’s so emotional to see how she is thriving, and it’s wonderful to be part of each other’s lives like this.
Her mum and I speak regularly and text, and we’re so close we call each other ‘sis’. There is a massive shortage of donors from minority groups — only 3 per cent of deceased donors last year were people of Asian heritage, yet they made up 18 per cent of the transplant waiting list.
I think there are fears and misconceptions about medical procedures, which makes it more difficult to find a match.
My husband’s family in India initially thought I’d had to sell my kidney.
When I explained I gave it away, they couldn’t understand why I had done it.
They do now, and are very proud of me.
Harmit also didn’t think it was a good idea at first, but now he is very proud of me and what I have done.