Martyn Fox became one of the oldest people in Britain to receive a kidney transplant at the age of 75. He tells Judith Field about his illness, eight-month recovery and search for the altruistic stranger who made his life-saving operation possible.
Last year, Martyn Fox got a second chance at life, thanks to a person he has never met, who decided to donate a kidney to a stranger.
“It all started in 1988, when I was 52,” Martyn said. “I had to have a medical exam and found that my blood pressure was too high.”
He put this down to the stress of running a business. “I felt fine, but in 1996 I was out walking and felt breathless. It was the first time I got any symptoms.” Things did not improve and, in 1998, Martyn decided to retire.
In 2007, Martyn was found to be suffering from polycystic kidneys, the cause of his raised blood pressure. This is a hereditary condition but nobody in his family had it. He started receiving dialysis and went on the transplant waiting list for a kidney donation.
“I had to go to hospital three times a week for five hours at a time,” Martyn said. “In between sessions I’d feel worse and worse as the waste my kidneys should have got rid of built up in my blood- stream. It wasn’t a lot of fun. “I was severely re- stricted in what I could eat as well, to make the workload on my kidneys as low as possible and try to keep my body fluids and minerals in balance. I lost weight and I had very little energy.”
This went on for four years. Then one Friday after- noon, while he was in a dialysis session, he got a call on his mobile phone. “To my amazement, a voice told me that they had a donor, who was a match for me.” Martyn hadn’t really believed it would happen. “I was getting older, and you expect them to put younger people first. That would only be right.”
But he was the best match, so at 75 was one of the oldest people ever to receive a kidney transplant. He went into the Hammersmith Hospital, where consultant transplant and vas- cular surgeon Jeremy Crane took six- and-a-half hours to perform the operation. It took Martyn around eight months to recover fully. He managed to make contact with the donor, and wrote in gratitude.
In reply, the donor said that giving a kidney had brought many unexpected blessings but to hear how it had improved Martyn’s life was the icing on the cake: “It has meant a lot to me to hear from you. I have been lucky in so many ways and feel fortunate to have shared it with you.”
Since the operation, Martyn has to be monitored closely to check that everything is working. “I have to go once a fortnight and I worry that something won’t be right – but I just live with it. Things are so much better now. But it has been hard on my wife. Even after the operation, I needed blood transfusions.”
He has nothing but praise for the NHS: “There’s a rapid response clinic at Hammersmith Hospital. If I have any problems I can go straight there. Now I can eat what I like. I have to take medication, but I had to take much more before the transplant.” Later this year he plans to go to Israel with the Maccabi Lawn Green Bowling team as a spectator. “It’ll be my first holiday since the transplant,” says Martyn. According to his surgeon Jeremy Crane, there are about 15 to 20 such nondirected altruistic donations every year.
There are a number of reasons why people do it. It might be part of a grief reaction. Or maybe there’s been a transplant in the family, or they know someone who’s received one. It might even be prompted by media attention like this article. He is delighted with Martin’s outcome and does not feel that age is a barrier to successful transplantation. Of the 150 to 200 kidney transplants performed at Mr Crane’s unit every year, about half of these are live donations where a person has given a kidney to a relative or loved one.
There is a greater chance of the transplant having a good long-term outcome if there’s a live donation. There’s less time taken in transferring the kidney from donor to recipient and you can plan the surgery more carefully. Patients aren’t shocked by having to be rushed in as an emergency admission. Also, when there is a living donation, the kidney usually works right away.
In the case of a deceased donor, this is often not the case. Saving a life is a primary obligation in Judaism. Jewish law has no problem with organ donations from living donors. NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT) has encouraged, supported and promoted nondirected altruistic donation since it was made possible through a change in the law six years ago.
Before then, living donation was limited to exchanges between family members and life-long friends, but one-in-three organ transplants in the UK are now from a living donor. NHSBT makes sure that the process is anonymous to ensure the privacy of donors and recipients alike. This is so important, given the wide range of emotions which can be involved before and after a transplant.
NHSBT support living donation, but point out that if more people donated their organs after death, there would be less demand for kidney transplants for living donors. As a result, they urge people who have not already done so to sign the organ donor register and to discuss their wishes with their loved ones.
To find out more about donating visit: http://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/