When caring sister Joanne Boylan discovered brother Rick Flemming needed a kidney transplant, without hesitation, she offered to be his donor and was the perfect match.
The operation was a complete success – and came 13 years after the siblings saw their dad David donate his kidney to his wife Margaret after turning out to be a miracle match. Aasma Day talks to the family about their amazing tale.
When people ask Joanne Boylan what she bought her brother, Rick, for his 40th birthday, with a cheeky grin she replies: “I gave him one of my kidneys!”
Smiling wryly, brother Rick adds: “I celebrated my 40th birthday in hospital with a cup of tea and a biscuit! But it was the best thing I could have hoped for, as it gave me my life back.”
Brother and sister Rick and Joanne had always been close, but are now even closer after Rick was transplanted one of Joanne’s kidneys after tests revealed she was the perfect match.
In a quirk of fate, Joanne’s live kidney donation came 13 years after the brother and sister went through the experience of seeing their parents Margaret and David Flemming go through a transplant together, after David turned out to be a perfect match, despite the odds being similar to winning the Lottery. Modestly, Joanne, 44, who lives in Leyland, near Preston with husband Kevin and five-year-old son Sean, shrugs off any comments telling her what a “brave and amazing” thing she did.
It is a pleasure knowing the Flemming family, and they have shown great strength and unity in helping each other and also supporting the living kidney donation programme here at Royal Preston Hospital. Richard and his sister have lived the success of their father’s donation to their mother 13 years ago, and I am sure this contributes to the family’s positive attitude towards life.Fiona Biggins, transplant recipient c0-ordinator at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
She says: “I don’t think it was brave – it’s what I’d like to think anyone would do for their family or a loved one.
“I didn’t even have to think about it. He’s my brother and I wanted to help him.”
Joanne, who works for the Department of Work and Pensions, says her parents’ positive experience and seeing the miraculous change it made to her mum’s life made her decision even easier.
When Margaret, now 69, who also lives in Leyland, was diagnosed with kidney failure, doctors told her the only cure was a transplant.
Devoted husband David, now 70, couldn’t bear the thought of Margaret going on demanding dialysis. In desperation, he asked doctors if he could give her one of his kidneys. Medics warned it was extremely rare for a non-blood relative to be a match – with odds the same as winning the Lottery.
Amazingly, David ended up being a perfect match for Margaret, in more ways than one, and the transplant was successfully carried out in 2002.
Since then, Margaret has been living life to the full, enjoying her retirement with David and has plenty of energy for her grandchildren.
It was soon after his mother’s transplant that Rick discovered he had kidney disease, at around the age of 26.
Rick and Joanne were tested to check their kidneys were functioning – and although Joanne was fine, doctors realised there was a problem with Rick’s kidneys.
At first, it wasn’t too much of an issue and for about 10 years, Rick lived a fairly normal life.
Rick, a company director running his own medical writing business, recalls: “I was studying for my Phd in Leeds at the time and a routine test showed something abnormal. Further tests showed I had kidney disease.
“But for the first 10 years or so, I had a lot of kidney function and just had to have regular check-ups. However, my kidney function was declining and I began suffering from tiredness and gout, which was really painful.
“Doctors told me I’d eventually need a kidney transplant and the ideal scenario was a transplant before going on dialysis.”
Things took a nosedive a year ago when Rick got a bad cold, which made his kidney function decline rapidly.
Rick explains: “I began to feel extremely tired, nauseous and suffered a lot of headaches.
“Unfortunately, with my kidney function suddenly declining so much, I ended up going on dialysis before transplant.”
Rick was put on peritoneal dialysis, carried out at home four times a day.
At the same time as starting dialysis, doctors began looking for a donor.
Rick, who is married to Philippa and has sons Luke, eight and Zachary, five, was touched when his sister Joanne, his wife Philippa and his mother-in-law all put themselves forward to be tested.
Rick, who grew up in Leyland, but now lives with his family in Oxford, says: “I felt very touched and thankful that all these people were willing to do this for me.
“It is a very difficult thing to have to accept from someone. But I had reached the point where I felt so rubbish, I was willing to accept a kidney as I knew it was the only thing that would make me feel better.”
Tests revealed Joanne was a perfect match to donate a kidney to Rick.
Joanne says ever since she discovered Rick would need a transplant one day, she knew she would volunteer to give him one of her kidneys.
And witnessing the success of her mum’s transplant with her dad’s kidney made her even more determined to help her brother.
Joanne says: “I remember my mum’s transplant as being one of the worst days of my life.
“Both my mum and dad were in theatre at the same time. It was awful, as there was nothing we could do except wait.
“But the transplant was a complete success and it changed my mum’s life for the better and my dad has had no ill effects.
“When it became clear Rick needed a transplant, myself, his wife and her mum all volunteered and were tested – and I was the perfect match.
“I was really happy I was a match for Rick. With us being brother and sister, I just assumed I’d be a match and I would have been devastated if I wasn’t.”
After the initial tests, Joanne went to Oxford for more intensive tests and when all the results came back fine, a date was set for the transplant to go ahead in Oxford.
Joanne says she wasn’t nervous at all in the run-up to the procedure. She says: “I kept waiting for the nerves to kick in but they didn’t.
“It didn’t really hit me until I walked into the theatre and saw the bed and the anaesthetist.
“I think my lack of nerves was a lot to do with my mum and dad having been through the same thing and seeing them have such a positive outcome.
“However, everyone else was really worried, and the day of the transplant was long and stressful for them.
“It was particularly difficult for my mum and dad as not only were they seeing history repeat itself, they had their son and daughter going through a major operation at the same time.
“If either of them could have swapped places with us, they would have done.”
Rick remembers: “Everything felt really surreal before the operation. My sister was an absolute rock all the way through, as were my wife and my mum and dad.”
Rick says as soon as he woke up after the surgery, he began reaping the positive effects of his new kidney.
He explains: “One of the things I suffered from a great deal while I was on dialysis was constant and severe headaches.
“When I woke up after the surgery, the first thing I noticed was that my headache had gone.
“I felt really clear-headed, which felt strange but wonderful.
“For the first few days, I was a bit sore after the physical operation. But despite this, I felt a lot better.
“I was only in hospital about five days and myself and Joanne were on the same ward in our own rooms, only a short walk away from each other.
“It really helped having my sister there, and we took it in turns to walk to each other’s rooms.”
Joanne says: “As soon as I came round properly, I wanted to know how Rick was. I was so elated and relieved when I found out he was OK.
“My worst fear had been that after being a perfect match for him something might go wrong on the day.
“But luckily, everything went really well just like it did with our mum and dad. History repeated itself with a positive outcome.
“It was a very emotional moment when Rick and I saw each other for the first time after the operation.
“Rick looked so much better just 24 hours after the operation. You could visibly see the difference in him.
“He kept saying ‘Thank you’ and telling me that thanks wasn’t enough.
“Just seeing him look so much better was all the thanks I needed.”
Joanne adds: “My recovery has been fine and if anyone is in the same situation where they can donate to a family member or loved one, I would urge them to do it and not hesitate.”
Rick is now doing well and is no longer tired all the time and has renewed energy and concentration.
Apart from taking anti-rejection medication and attending check-ups, he is living a normal life.
He says: “Having the transplant has given me my life back and I have a lot more energy and am able to do things with my boys.
“It is all a bit unusual as I have one of my sister’s kidneys while my mum has one of my dad’s kidneys! It is really remarkable when you think about it.
“I feel immense gratitude to Joanne.
“Life carries on as normal, and sometimes I feel guilty that I’m not on the phone to Joanne every day thanking her.
“But I think about it every day, and I think she knows how much it means to me.
“We have always been close, but this has brought us even closer.”