Antrim man James Nash gives wife gift of life by donating kidney - after thinking he wasn't a match
James and Libby Nash feared long wait for replacement organ until fate intervened, says Lisa Smyth
Co Antrim husband and wife James and Libby Nash are back home - just days after he donated a kidney to save her life. Libby started to become dangerously ill after her kidneys began to fail last year, following a double lung transplant in 2012.
But, in a remarkable twist of fate, doctors discovered that James was a blood and tissue match and the couple went under the knife together at Belfast City Hospital.
"One person said to me that I had the choice of donating my kidney to my wife or seeing her in a box - and he was right," says James. "It wasn't a question of whether I would do it.
"To see Libby since the surgery... it has been really amazing to be able to change someone's life, especially someone I love.
"She has been through so much over the years. She has seen so many hospitals and so many doctors and has always done it with a smile on her face."
Libby (32) was born with cystic fibrosis and almost died after spending six years on the waiting list for a lung transplant.
She was so close to death by the time she got her operation that she had even made plans for her own funeral - discussing the event in detail with James.
She became the first person in Northern Ireland to be treated with a novalung - specialist equipment to do the work of her lungs until an organ match was found. Blood flows from the patient, driven by their heart function, into the machine, where carbon dioxide is removed and oxygen is added before it is returned to the patient's body.
Following the double lung transplant at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne, James and Libby, from Randalstown, were finally able to enjoy a honeymoon in America - allowing her to realise her lifelong dream of visiting Disney World in Florida.
However, Libby's health began to deteriorate again last year, after which it emerged her kidneys were starting to fail.
"I'm a different blood group from Libby, so I thought I wouldn't be able to donate to her," says James (35).
"I agreed to go into a national pool of live kidney donors, where I would donate my kidney to a stranger and Libby would get a kidney in return. However, it turned out there were no matches for Libby. Then we found out that I was a match.
"I was just surprised that I could donate because I didn't think it was a possibility. My mind was made up that I wanted to do it, so I wasn't really nervous on the morning of the operation."
A team of medics led by consultant transplant surgeon Tim Brown removed James's kidney by keyhole surgery. The organ was then transplanted to Libby in an operation that took two hours.
"I was a bit sick from the anaesthetic and had low blood pressure, but they were able to wheel me up to see her as she was brought out of theatre," James says. "It was so good to see her come through the operation.
"I have to take things easy for a while - I'm not allowed to lift anything too heavy. Libby has taken a bit longer to recover because of her medical history and because of her actual surgery. She is up and on her feet, but she is sore.
"She also has to be really careful about staying away from crowds because of the immunosuppressant medication. We had to put off a trip to America last year when Libby got sick and we're married 10 years in 2018, so we're hoping we will be able to go then to celebrate.
"It will be six months before we can get back to normal and we know there are always uncertainties, but we are one step closer to getting back to normal."
Prior to her kidney transplant, Libby was on dialysis, but said it was not a permanent solution.
"Dialysis keeps you alive - it gets rid of the waste products - but dialysis doesn't last forever," says surgeon Mr Brown. "Patients on dialysis find it tiring and debilitating, and life-expectancy for a patient on dialysis, compared to those who have had a transplant, is halved.
"On average, 50% of transplanted kidneys are still working in 23 years. I was delighted with how Libby and James's surgery went and with their outstanding progress in the few days since they came to theatre.
"However, they are still at a very early stage of their recovery and, given how precious they both are to us, we will be monitoring them very closely over the coming weeks."
Mr Brown, who was part of a team of Belfast surgeons who carried out five live kidney transplants in one day in 2015, says a number of complications can occur. These include rejection of the organ and the development of kinks in blood vessels.
Despite the precarious nature of the operation, Libby was more worried about James than herself.
"I don't feel too bad - I'm a bit sore, but that's to be expected," she says.
"I'm back up on my feet, but I have to take everything very slowly. I have to avoid crowds for at least six weeks, but I am looking forward to getting back to normal.
"I wasn't really nervous before the surgery because I have had operations before and I knew it had to be done. I was more worried about James because he had never had an operation before and he was going through something he didn't have to do.
"It was such a relief when he came back up from surgery and they told me he was okay - I was more settled about everything then.
"I am relieved it is all over us now, although I know it's early days and the doctors are going to be keeping a really close eye on me.
"I do feel a lot of weight off my shoulders. I can't wait for us to get back to a normal life."
In June last year, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that James had added his name to a national list of live kidney donors in a bid to save Libby's life.
At the time, James explained that he was more than happy to donate a kidney to a complete stranger if it meant his wife would survive.
"When Libby was so ill before, I couldn't bring myself to go home, as it just made me think what it would be like if she didn't make it," he said. "I just don't want to imagine that happening and that's why I'm willing to do whatever it takes to keep her with me."
More than 720,500 people have signed the NHS Organ Donor Register in Northern Ireland - or 39% of the population.
At present, around 200 people in Northern Ireland are on the transplant waiting list and each year around 14 die waiting for an organ.
To sign up to the NHS Organ Donor Register, telephone 0300 123 23 23, or log on to www.organdonationni.info