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'The transplant was a wake-up call... I gave up my law career to start a coffee shop business'

Since Belfast's Orla Smyth received a new kidney she's lived life to the full, running cafes... and marathons

By Una Brankin

Published 16/02/2016

Business passion: Orla Smyth employs over 20 people through her coffee shops
Business passion: Orla Smyth employs over 20 people through her coffee shops
Fit friends: Orla and Melanie Minshall at a Runher event in Stormont
Determined competitor: Orla competing at the Transplant Sport UK 5K Run in Ormeau Park

Every night for more than three years, Orla Smyth had to try to sleep while attached by tubes to a dialysis machine. The crucial blood cleansing procedure became a daily grind for the Belfast businesswoman's life in the final year of her legal studies at Queen's University, Belfast, when she went into kidney failure.

"I was born with a defect which left scarring on the kidneys, although I wasn't a sickly baby," recalls Orla (35). "I only started to get renal problems after I collapsed one day, in primary seven, the day after I made my confirmation. I had renal problems from I was 11, was closely monitored after that and it wasn't until my last year at Queen's University that I deteriorated.

"I had a pre-emptive transplant when I was 24, but that failed after three months, then came the dialysis, for three and a half years."

A former corporate lawyer, Orla met her husband Declan, a physical education teacher from Banbridge, during her first year at university. The couple married in 2005 and honeymooned in Paris - dialysis machine in tow.

"I was exhausted all the time and I lost a lot of weight, and I've always been tall and thin anyway," she says. "I was very ill for a while but I got through my exams fine and went to work as a solicitor. I had no social life at all - I had to allow nine-and-a-half hours altogether for the whole dialysis and then be in work for 7.30 or 8am.

"It was restricting but it didn't stop me from going on holidays to New York, Spain, France and so on. I just brought the machine with me. I had no choice, so it just became the norm. You don't have a chance to be in your 20s again."

Orla grew up on Belfast's Ormeau Road with her older siblings, Patrick and Kiera. Her father, Jim, is a retired architect; her mother, Therese, a retired teacher. The dialysis helped keep her kidneys stable for three and half years.

After her initial renal surgery failed, due to complications and infection, Orla received a kidney transplant in 2007, during her tenure as a lawyer with Danske Bank.

"The donor was a lady, not from Northern Ireland, and I was able to write to her family to thanks them, through the hospital," she recalls. "I was in the City Hospital for eight days - the pain was very well managed, and then I was off work for six months to recover. I got shingles, which was horrendous, but not having to have dialysis was indescribable. You just exist on dialysis but you get your life back after a transplant."

Orla is indebted to the support given to her throughout her illness by her husband, family and friends. Her mother Therese, in particular, has been an inspiration to her youngest daughter.

"Mum has been ill recently but she has a really positive attitude towards it. She is such as strong woman and she was always very well when I was sick, so the roles are reversed now. I had the same positive attitude as mum, at the time. You might not be able to control your circumstances but you can change your attitude towards them.

"I believe you attract what you put out in life and I'm a big believer in karma. You get back what you give."

A GAA footballer in her youth, Orla was able to get her fitness levels back to almost normal after her transplant. She took up running, entered marathons and competed as a middle-distance runner in the World Transplant Games in Sweden in 2009.

She says: "The transplant was a wake-up call - I suddenly had energy again and wanted to do something different. I was never unhappy as a lawyer but I was always restless and wasn't fulfilled. I'd been very sick at a very young age - now a person who had died had given me a kidney and I wanted to make the most of it, and the experience of meeting so many people with transplants at the games in Sweden made me realise we only have one chance."

Orla became friendly with an English rugby player in his 20s who'd had a heart transplant and was able to return to playing professional rugby afterwards. She also met transplant recipients who had started their own businesses and professional practices, including a teacher who switched from teaching to become a physiotherapist.

After the games, Orla was working in Copenhagen, a city of coffee connoisseurs.

"I discovered Kaffe O concept coffee, which is a mix of Guatemalan, Ethiopian and Costa Rican beans, and drank it every day. It's a strong, dark roast and, you know, coffee is good for your health - it's a performance enhancer. I started dreaming about opening up my own Kaffe O here and decided to end my legal career, after 12 years as a corporate lawyer, and start saving.

"It took me a year to get our premises on the Ormeau Road and we added a second one on Botanic Avenue, four months ago. As a lawyer, you're not your own boss and you can go home and leave the job behind. Now, I employ 22 people and find I never switch off, but I am using my creativity and do all the PR, marketing and social media. And I have plenty of energy now to do it."

Orla now enjoys good health. She loves running with her chocolate labrador Dennis and in the Cooley mountains around Carlingford, where she had her wedding reception in the gorgeous country house hotel, Ghan House. She's returning there this weekend after a busy week running her two cafes.

"I'm happy I did the right thing, giving up law and going into something I'm passionate about," she concludes. "Law was a safe option. Although this is 100% harder than anything I imagined, it's my passion. I guess I am a little obsessive and always see things that can be done better."

Kaffe O, 411 Ormeau Road, tel: 9064 2434. You can also find it on Facebook (Kaffe O) and on Twitter (@KaffeOBelfast)

Famous names struck down by the disease

■ Petite actress Sarah Hyland (25), best known as Haley Dunphy from the American TV series Modern Family, received a transplant in 2012 from her father, 10 years after initially being diagnosed with kidney dysplasia, an abnormal tissue development in the kidney. Sarah recently earned a Screen Actor Guild Award.

Other well-known names who have overcome renal problems include:

■ Liam Payne (22) of One Direction: born with a partially functioning kidney

■ Pete Burns (56), singer with Dead or Alive: acute kidney failure caused by several kidney stones

■ Nick Cannon (35), singer, actor: suffers from lupus nephritis

■ 30 Rock actor Grizzwald Chapman (41): kidney failure due to hypertension, transplant recipient; and his co-star Ken Howard (71); kidney failure caused by a misdiagnosed blockage; transplant recipient.

■ Lucy Davis (43), actress famous for The Office: kidney failure due to diabetes; transplant recipient

■ Aron Eisenberg (47), actor in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: born with one partially functioning kidney; transplant recipient

■ George Lopez (54), comedian: hereditary kidney disease; transplant recipient

■ Scott MacIntyre (30), American Idol singer: family history of kidney disease; transplant recipient

■ Neil Simon (88): playwright, suffered from PKD; transplant recipient

Belfast Telegraph

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