My best friend gave me the greatest gift

When a mum of three from West Cork needed a kidney transplant, her best friend stepped in to offer her one. A year on, the duo have completed a triathlon and are looking forward to a bright future, reveals CHRIS DUNNE
My best friend gave me the greatest gift

LOTS OF LAUGHTER DURING A CHALLENGING TIME: Fiona O’Donnell and Grainne O’Keeffe in hospital, before the kidney transplant operation.

WE all get by with a little help from our friends — the diamonds who walk into your life and say; ‘I’m there for you’, and prove it.

Grainne O’Keeffe was there for her friend, Fiona O’Donnell, when Fiona needed a kidney transplant due to kidney disease.

“Fiona is very inspirational,” says Grainne, from Skibbereen. “When her kidney disease was at its peak, you would never hear her moan. There was always humour involved.

“Fiona is an illustration of how positive thinking and attitude can help lead you through illness and, hopefully, recovery.”

A year ago, on September 4, Grainne gave her best friend the greatest gift of all — the chance to live a full, active, and happy life, by donating one of her kidneys.

“It was an emotional time,” admits Grainne.

How did she make this major decision that would greatly enhance Fiona’s life and that of her family, for the future?

A JOURNEY BACK TO FITNESS: Fiona O’Donnell, left on both photos, and Grainne O’Keefe, who took part in the Schull Triathlon, just nine months after the kidney transplant operation.
A JOURNEY BACK TO FITNESS: Fiona O’Donnell, left on both photos, and Grainne O’Keefe, who took part in the Schull Triathlon, just nine months after the kidney transplant operation.

“Because I could,” says Grainne. “I remember when the subject came up, flippantly saying; ‘I’ll get tested and I’ll donate a kidney’. I thought it might be a remote possibility. When Beaumont Hospital confirmed that I was a match; I thought, J***s! What have I just done?”

Grainne knew the magnitude of her generous gesture.

“My aunt was one of the earliest cadaveric kidney recipients in Ireland,” she says.

“So it is a relevant subject in our household. I have seven siblings and you never anticipate donating a kidney unless you know someone who needs it.”

When her best friend, and fellow sports enthusiast, Fiona, was in dire need of a kidney Grainne stepped up to the plate.

“Fiona was in her mid-thirties with a young family, three young children, like myself,” says Grainne.

“I am fit and healthy and also very pragmatic. I was like; ‘let’s do this’. And so the process of testing, both physical and psychological, began.”

It was just the two of them, on the journey that would bond Grainne and Fiona, unlike no other trek they’d been on before.

“We had great fun in hospital!” says Grainne. “It was plain sailing. And we had a very sociable recovery!””

The pals recently crossed another significant finishing line.

“We completed the Schull Triathlon,” says Grainne. “It was our first triathlon together since the transplant operation. The event had extra significance for both of us.”

Reflecting on her health, before the transplant, Fiona said: “I was pregnant and my ankles were swollen, so I suspected oedema.”

Fiona, who is a nutritionist, originally from Ballincollig, living in Clonakilty added: “The kidney condition erupted out of the blue. When I was 16 weeks pregnant, a biopsy confirmed that my kidney function was gradually deteriorating.”

Her nearest and dearest were shocked. So was she.

“I had a very healthy lifestyle,” says Fiona. “It was just one of those things.

“My husband, Brian, works in the medical field,” she adds. “He looked at the worst outcome and worked backwards.”

Fiona and her medical team worked well together and managed her kidney condition well.

“Then I got a really bad dose of the flu which set me back,” says Fiona.

“I had to go on a chemotherapy agent and hydro-steroids in a last ditch effort to boost the immune system so that the kidneys weren’t under attack. My thyroid took a dive then too. And I was anaemic.”

The young mother found herself in strange territory.

“It was a difficult place to be,” says Fiona. “I had no appetite and I got very thin. I work from home online and I stopped working. I was just flat. I had five blocks of energy a day. By the time the kids were gone to school and I had dinner ready; my energy was zapped.”

The troops rowed in.

“The children were really good to help,” says Fiona. “They learned to use the espresso coffee machine and when I was lying on the couch, they’d often land in with a cup of coffee.

“The group of friends I train with, running, cycling, and swimming, were fantastic. We are a tight group and we support each other. If I couldn’t swim, someone would suggest a walk on the beach or a coffee and cake. That was always welcome!”

The conversation started. Dialysis was on the cards.

“In 2016, my doctor said I would have to think about having dialysis. I was quite confident that it wouldn’t be intrusive,” say Fiona. “I opted for ambulatory, so I could move around. I even went cycling with it!”

Then the conversation took a different turn.

“The jury was in, I had to have a kidney transplant.”

WHAT AN ACHIEVEMENT: With their medals, having completed the Schull Triathlon.
WHAT AN ACHIEVEMENT: With their medals, having completed the Schull Triathlon.

People’s names went into the hat as a possible donor. Grainne’s name was one of them.

Fiona said: “I said to Grainne; ‘why would you?’ and her response was; ‘why wouldn’t you?’”.

Fiona was overwhelmed by her friend’s brave gesture.

“You know, you can repay a friend and do them a favour if the car breaks down or the kids need dropping to school. But I don’t see how you could repay this amazing gift down the line.”

Fiona accepted the chance to continue a healthy future with her family.

The bond of friendship between Grainne and Fiona had no barriers.

“It may be a barrier for some. But not for me,” says Fiona.

The women went for it.

“It was a long process, getting tested over and over and meeting the team. Before the transplant operation; we were tested again.”

They meant to go the distance without being separated.

“I remember when I was assigned my room at Beaumont Hospital, there was an empty room opposite me,” says Fiona.

“I asked could Grainne have that room? I knew she would demand it when she arrived. Sure enough, when she was shown down the corridor to her room she immediately asked ‘isn’t that room free, opposite Fiona?’

“Grainne was always laughing. You’d hear her before you saw her!”

The kidney transplant operation was a total success. Both women bounced back in record time.

“The worst of it was, we spent so much time laughing; we were afraid we’d burst our stitches,” says Fiona.

“We had breakfast, lunch and dinner in each other’s room.” There were rooms available for their family members too.

“The Irish Kidney Association Renal Support Centre, 100 metres walk from the hospital, is a house where Brian and the children could stay, as well as Grainne’s family. It is a brilliant facility, relieving the stress of having to find accommodation and deal with Dublin traffic,” says Fiona.

Even though the steroid medications and the morphine, had slightly unpleasant side-effects; Fiona says the operation took very well.

“I was a bit twitchy afterwards and I had a few bad nightmares; but all-in-all, the kidney transplant was very successful,” says Fiona.

The pals got back in the saddle.

“Grainne and I decided to begin training again. I felt I could after 12 weeks,” says Fiona.

“At the start, I walked at snail’s pace, building up the distance every day, doing 10 steps more. Yes, it was a very slow process. I did Yoga and physiotherapy to help aid my body in the recovery process. When I could do 10 pelvic tilts; I thought I was ready to go to the Olympics!” Fiona is over the line now.

“Life is good,” she says. “I’m back training with Grainne and the gang. I’m back to work. Life is good.” 

“I’m looking at doing the half Iron-man in Dublin and to 2019, to the Transplant Games in Newcastle; might be a leap too far!” 

But there are no barriers, and no fear. Remember?

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