FOR many people, avoiding a telephone call is a side-effect of a busy life, for many others, a telephone call is all that they are waiting for, because literally their lives depend on it. As you read this, there are 600 people in Ireland who are awaiting a transplant, and awaiting a telephone call to tell them that it could happen within hours.
There are 600 suitcases packed, some for as long as a year and longer, so that delay is minimised in getting them from whatever part of the country to Dublin's Beaumont Hospital. They know too, that in order for that call to come, some other life has to have ended, so one person's wish for life is juxtaposed with another's loss.
Corrandulla woman Fiona Burke was one such person. The popular chef at Franklin's restaurant in the Galway Shopping Centre had been diagnosed as a diabetic in her teens but fading sight and kidney failure meant she was placed on the transplant list — for a simultaneous kidney and pancreas transplant.
It is a daunting operation, with the possibility of myriad complications and possible rejection. However, Fiona's story had an extra happy outcome, as she went on to become a beacon of hope for many women in particular who are entering the transplant programme and who fear they may never be able to have children.
Fiona was diagnosed as a diabetic in her early teens. She had displayed all the normal symptoms, the strong thirst, the unexplained weight loss and so her doctor sent her for tests which showed that she was a diabetic.
A diagnosis at any stage is difficult, but to face such limitations when faced with the enjoyment of the teenage years, makes it all the more difficult to adhere to its restrictions. And so she commenced a life of insulin injections several times a day and dialysis four times a week.
However, the condition took its toll on Fiona and gradually, her sight grew worse.
"I knew there was something wrong with my eyes. I went to Specsavers for an eye test and the man there told me to go straight back to A&E. It was frightening to think that my eyesight was slipping away, but it was. Coming and going, and eventually going almost altogether."
With such a possibility becoming more and more real, the decision was taken to place Fiona on the waiting list for a pancreas and kidney transplant.
Such an operation seemed daunting to the young woman but she faced it with her usual good humour. However, there was no reason to be fearful.
The Pancreas Transplant Programme began as a pilot study in Beaumont Hospital in 1992 and to date more than 120 transplants have been performed. The success of the transplant programme was such that almost all of the recipients had their lives changed by the operation.
To prepare for the list, Fiona had to submit to rigorous blood tests to ensure that any available organs could be matched with speed.
She was told that she could be on the list for up to a year and that of course, there were no guarantees, especially when you are effectively waiting for a life to pass so that you can avail of the fresh organ to be transplanted into your body.
She carried on with her life and it was while she was out doing her Christmas shopping in 2002 that she got the phone call from Dublin.
"The phone rang and the woman said that she might have a transplant for me and that she'd know in a few hours, so she asked me to be prepared. Of course, I had a bag prepared for such an eventuality for seven months, but of course, when you get the call you tend to get excited and you have to go and check again to make sure you have all you need.
"I hadn’t told them at home that the call had come through, preferring to wait until there was confirmation, but they knew me too well and knew that I was sitting on a secret, and when they saw me checking the bag, they guessed that I'd had some news.
"So I told them and they were very excited, while of course realising that maybe nothing may have come of it that night, but around midnight, the phone rang again, and it was confirmed that I was to receive the transplant and that suitable matching organs had been found.
"Carmel Comer who is a wonderful lady who is taxidriver for the HSE drove me up to Beaumont and it was after 3am when we got there.
"The journey was not nerve-wracking, considering that the operation for which I had been waiting was going to take place in a few hours. I suppose you don't have much time to let it all sink in.
"I was delighted I was getting in and when we got there, I had to undergo more blood tests and then I was wheeled in for the surgery.”
Fiona was on the surgeons’ table for more than eight hours and it was deemed a success. But like with all transplant operations, it was still far too early to tell if the new organs would be accepted or rejected by the body and with her immune system effectively shut down, she would be very susceptible to an infection.
It would be the guts of a week before she would come to properly and knew where she was and what she was doing there. She was given soft foods to eat, such as jelly.
“What amazed me when I woke up and knew what was going on, was that just how well I was feeling, almost immediately. Now, of course, I was sore from the operation, but that was inevitable.”
After two weeks in the hospital, she was free to go home to Corrandulla, but for the next six months, she underwent more blood tests as the doctors strove to ensure that the organs were matching. The fear of an infection was also very real and that was realised four months later, when she was hospitalised again.
But that apart, the double transplant was a success and with her sight restored and her diabetes gone, and dialysis removed from her life, she was able to resume her full life.
And for the next four or five years, Fiona's new organs began to operate normally, her eyesight came back, her general condition improved, and she was able to resume work.
At this stage, she had become engaged to her fiancee Richard Burke and they married in 2006.
However, both knew that the prospect of having children was slim. Even though she was not discouraged from trying, Fiona and Richard knew that nobody in Ireland who had ever had the double kidney and pancreas transplant had gone on to give birth. Indeed, only 20 women in the world had done so, so the chances were very slim indeed.
But in December 2008 came the news they had been waiting for. Against all the odds, Fiona became pregnant, but given that she was a double organ transplant recipient, it was not expected that she would go full term.
But the weeks and months went by without complication and her pregnancy was monitored by her doctors. Eventually they revealed that they were so keen to ensure that the baby was delivered as healthily as possible, even if that meant bringing forward the birth to 30 weeks.
The baby was due in Aug 2009, but last June, baby Jake made his entrance to the world, weighing just over 1.1 kilos/2.5 lbs. After he was born, he was located in an incubator for seven weeks, spending eleven weeks in total in the neo-natal ward, until he was strong enough to go home.
At last check, Jake weighed a solid 17 lbs and was as healthy as the proverbial trout.
In the wider transplant community across Europe, Fiona's story has been well case studied among doctors, but she is taking it all in my stride.
“It's a fantastic ending all right and I'm only too glad to help the cause of increasing awareness about organ donation. Richard and I are delighted with Jake's progress and we can only thank all of the doctors, friends, family, her colleagues and employers at Franklins, the staff of Beaumont Hospital, the Neo Natal Clinic in UHG, the Maternity Unit in UHG, the staff at Merlin Park. Of course, there is one person who we wish to thank who made it all possible.
“I wouldn't have had the quality of life I had and I wouldn't have gone on to have Jake were it not for the generosity of the person whose organs I received.
“The decision of that person and of their family made it possible for me to have a healthy life and for Jake to be born.
“I know what it's like to be on the waiting list and there are hundreds more on that list today who are waiting just like I was. That list gets shorter the more people sign up for an organ donor card, so I would like to ask the many readers of the Advertiser to do that,” she said, urging people to give generously this week and to get information from the Irish Kidney Association volunteers who will be on the streets.
Fiona's dad, Brendan Hardiman, a well-known boatman on Lough Corrib told me recently that the birth of his grandson in these circumstances was akin to a jackpot win.
“I've been doing the Lotto for many years, but I feel the need to do it less now because I think I've won the lottery twice, with first, Fiona’s successful double transplant and now her miracle baby,” he said. “No Lotto jackpot could come near to matching that,” he said.
Throughout the Week, Irish Kidney Association volunteers will be out on the streets and in shopping centres throughout the country selling “forget me not flower” emblems (the symbol of transplantation ), brooches, magnetic car ribbons and organ donor keyrings. Proceeds will go to the Irish Kidney Association’s support programme for patients on dialysis and those patients fortunate enough to have a kidney transplant.
The Irish Kidney Association is the organisation charged with the promotion and distribution of the organ donor card in Ireland on behalf of all patient groups with an interest in organ donation who form the Irish donor network.
Information factfiles which accompany organ donor cards can be obtained (free of charge ) from the Irish Kidney Association and are available nationwide from pharmacies, GP surgeries, and Citizen Information Offices. Organ Donor Cards can also be obtained by phoning the Irish Kidney Association LoCall 1890 543639 or Freetext the word DONOR to 50050. Visit website www.ika.ie