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Would you donate one of your major organs to save the life of someone you love?
Joy Harrington had never considered herself as someone who got sick. Neither did her husband Phil. But in 2012, they were hit with some terrible news that would change them both.
A shocking revelation
“I considered myself a healthy person. But I began to feel more and more tired during my days at work. I thought – I’m just getting older, maybe I need a break. At 63, maybe I’m getting closer to retirement!” explained Joy from Golden Grove.
“I went to the GP all the same, they ran some tests, and I was told I had advanced stage kidney failure, just like that.”
Joy and Phil were in shock. It didn’t sink in.
“I just kept thinking; ‘no, this isn’t happening to me’,” said Joy.
Coming to terms with reality
Even though her condition advanced reasonably quickly, Joy wasn’t paying much attention to the prospect of dialysis. But by the time she went onto dialysis she only had four per cent kidney function. It had only been 20 months since her diagnosis.
“At that stage I was basically able to do nothing but lay on the couch. I was still in denial and to be told I had reached the critical stage of needing dialysis was really hard.”
The next steps
Phil put his hand up straight away to donate his kidney. Unfortunately he wasn’t a direct match for Joy, but they were able to register for the Australian Paired Kidney Exchange Programme (AKX) – a nationwide living kidney donor program.
A paired kidney exchange can happen when a living donor who is willing to donate to a spouse, friend or relative is unable to donate because they have an incompatible blood type or tissue type. The AKX Programme helps find compatible donors amongst other registered pairs who might be a suitable match. This enables two compatible living donor transplants to occur.
“Four data runs are performed each year in the program database to find matches, and we were warned that if we didn’t get a match after three data runs then it would be unlikely we would at all,” said Joy.
“We went through two runs and no luck, so we put the idea of a transplant in the back of our minds. We thought we should just manage the dialysis process and live our lives, because the disappointment each time was becoming too much.”
But one day – Joy and Phil received a life-changing call. They had a match.
Keeping fingers crossed
“I was just overwhelmed, but still not too hopeful because it was such early stages and there was a lot of work to be done. It was going to be a three-way exchange meaning all six of us involved needed to be really healthy and compatible. We were trying to keep a lid on our excitement.”
A three-way kidney swap
Thankfully, transplant went ahead and in early September this year Phil went in for surgery early in the morning. His kidney was transported to an interstate recipient and then, 12 hours after Phil’s operation, Joy received a kidney from an unknown interstate donor.
“It went really well, and I haven’t really looked back since the transplant. It’s the best thing,” said Joy.
“I’ve still got a way to go recovery and fitness wise but every day it gets better.”
Joy is taking part in a research study at the Basil Hetzel Institute to help others in her situation.
Participating in research
Joy said she has experienced minimal side effects from her anti-rejection medication. But she understands some people continue to struggle, even after a successful transplant.
“That’s why I agreed to participate in a research study which is currently underway, which will hopefully help people receive better treatment after a transplant.”
PhD student Zaipul Md Dom is gathering data from kidney transplant patients at the Royal Adelaide Hospital like Joy which will assist in his research aimed at improving doctors’ ability to prescribe accurate dosages of anti-rejection medication to their patients. You can read more about this research here.
Both Phil and Joy agree that the significance of medical research may not be given much consideration by people in the community until it becomes personal, like it has for them.
“We now have a greater appreciation for medical research. If the researchers can find out why kidney disease occurs in the first place, that is key; prevention. If you are healthy you just take life in your stride – thinking you’re invincible, but we need to support research.”
Gift of life
When asked about how it feels to have her husband save her life through the transplant, Joy warns she may get teary.
“All of my family were wonderful; my sister and two daughters were all tested and were willing to donate if they could.”
“But there are just not enough words for what Phil has done – it’s amazing. I just feel so blessed.”