Research keeping families together

Norman and Deanie

‘This is no way of living. I’m ready to die.’

Several years ago, Norman found himself thinking those exact thoughts.

He had so much to live for. Seven beautiful grandchildren. A long, loving marriage to his wife Deanie – they met sitting in neighbouring seats on a flight in 1970 and they’d been at each other’s side ever since.

Why, then, did Norman feel such despair? It was because he had severe problems with his kidneys, which left him in absolute agony.

Damaged by an autoimmune disease, his kidneys couldn’t function properly. Consequently, toxins and waste built up in the blood, causing his whole body to itch.

“It was horrible,” Norman says, “The itching was constant, day and night, all over my body. I couldn’t stop scratching. It was really debilitating.”

Norman took medication to cure the autoimmune disease and it worked, but his kidneys remained damaged. For the next stage of his treatment, he was admitted to Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and started having peritoneal dialysis.

This involves using the lining of the abdomen to filter the blood, removing toxins and waste. And it stopped the itching. But sadly, Norman’s suffering was far from over.

“I felt so tired and weak,” he says. “I lost interest in everything. I was like a zombie. That’s when I really felt like I couldn’t go on. I was ready to die.”

Research has had the most amazing impact on Norman’s life. At Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, he was put on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Incredibly, the perfect match was right there next to him – his wife Deanie.

“I didn’t think twice about being the donor,” says Deanie. “There’s no point in me living another 20 years if Norman only has 12 months. I didn’t want to be going around with two kidneys, if I had to live that life on my own.”

On Norman’s 75th birthday, Deanie gave him the most special gift. Her kidney was transplanted into his body and so far, it hasn’t been rejected. The surgery was a success.

Deanie’s gift is the reason that Norman is still here and seven grandchildren still have a grandfather. But research has also played a vital part. The five year survival rate for kidney transplant patients is 96% – a testament to recent medical advances.

Thankfully, treatments have come so far. Patients can now receive the lifeline of a new kidney, even from someone with a different blood type, enabling them to live much longer than if they just continue having dialysis.

But there is still a long way to go. On average, a donated kidney only lasts for 12 to 16 years. For Norman, this was his first kidney transplant and it will likely be his last. For young people with chronic kidney disease, the outlook is very different.

These patients face repeated transplant surgery throughout their lives. With every transplant, there is a greater chance their body will reject the new kidney. And there is a higher risk of dying from cancer or heart disease.

They also live in the terrible knowledge they’re more likely to get heart disease or cancer, facing the prospect that every Christmas could be their last.

That’s why Dr Wai Lim, Consultant Nephrologist at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, is so focused on improving kidney transplant outcomes. Dr Lim monitored Norman after his transplant, and he’s also received research funding from the Foundation.

“We’ve always known that many people with donated kidneys die from heart disease and cancers,” says Dr Lim. “Although we know a lot about the reasons of why people with kidney transplants experience heart disease and cancers, better treatment of these reasons has not substantially improved the outcome of transplant patients. In fact, 1 in 2 kidney transplant patients die from heart disease and cancer. I think there continues to be a real lack of understanding in this area of transplantation, and hence the importance of research.”

“Are there other ways to prevent heart disease and cancer in transplant patients? Are there ways we can extend the longevity of the transplants? Knowing these answers is vital for young patients, who might receive three or four transplants in their lifetime.”

It could extend the lifespan of these donated kidneys, so young people don’t have to endure the suffering of repeated transplant surgery. And this could, in turn, reduce waiting lists for kidney transplants.

With every month that passes, the risk of Norman’s body rejecting his new kidney reduces. He’s in much better shape, physically and mentally, since his lowest point – when he questioned whether he could go on.

Thanks to the excellent treatment and dedicated care at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, the love story that began on a flight in 1970 is still being written today.

“In June this year we had a family party for our 50th wedding anniversary,” says Norman. “It was my way of saying thank you to Deanie, for what she’s done for me.”

“I feel like I’m back to my old self. I’m gardening and going to the gym again. The first thing I did after I got out of hospital was baking. That was wonderful and emotional, because if I could bake, I knew I must be well. I told everyone, ‘The chef is back!’”