Emma Brolly had never met Catherine Finnegan... until her husband decided to donate a kidney in an amazing act of kindness
The two Belfast women tell Stephanie Bell how they have become friends for life after Emma's husband Joe made the incredible decision to help save the life of Catherine's husband Shane
It is hard to believe on meeting Emma Brolly and Catherine Finnegan that just a few months ago the women were complete strangers. As they sit together in a Belfast tearoom laughing intuitively at the same things and sharing their stories, it is obvious that the two women have developed a close bond.
Theirs is a natural friendship which has been borne out of a very unnatural situation. Thrust together after Emma's husband Joe decided to donate his kidney to save the life of Catherine's husband Shane, the two women have shared an emotional journey over the last few months but have emerged with an understanding of each other that in normal circumstances would take years to develop.
It's a closeness which they both value and agree is one of the many positives to come out of what at first was a tragic outcome to the live transplant when doctors had to remove Joe's kidney from Shane due to medical complications.
Joe Brolly didn't really know Shane either when he offered to give him his kidney. The two men are also now "as close as brothers" according to their wives and are spearheading a campaign to get everyone thinking and talking about organ donation. What made this transplant unique was the former GAA All-Ireland winner Joe, a barrister, only knew Shane, a PR executive, as an acquaintance through their involvement with St Brigid's GAA club in Belfast where they were both coaches.
When he heard Shane was seriously ill with renal failure, Joe didn't hesitate to offer his kidney, an act of such incredible altruism that the story immediately captured the imagination of the public. And as people eagerly followed the progress of the two men, behind them every step of the way was the two strong females in their lives, Catherine and Emma.
Reluctant media stars, the girls agreed to a rare one-off interview because they want to support their husbands in their campaign to get "an opt-out" system for kidney donation both north and south of the border.
Emma (44), a solicitor and a mother to five children aged from four to 12, met Joe when they both studied at Trinity University. The couple have been married 14 years.
She says she wasn't in the least surprised when Joe announced he was giving a man he hardly knew his kidney: "If you knew Joe, it was pretty typical of him. He is extremely spontaneous whereas I am the complete opposite and would procrastinate.
"Joe is quite capable of coming into our house and announcing anything and most of it I just filter out.
"His heart has always ruled his head and he is the type who wouldn't see obstacles in his way, he is very positive.
"My response was quite measured as I knew the chances that he would not be a match were incredibly high so I just thought we will wait and see what happens.
"He went through all the tests and when it became apparent he was a match we had a meeting with Dr Courtney in the City Hospital who was very approachable and honest and explained to us what it entailed for the donors.
"He told us it wasn't a high risk operation at all and I hadn't realised people are doing this every day of the week. He allayed any concerns.
"At that point Joe couldn't have not gone ahead with it."
Emma flew to London to be there when the two men underwent the live transplant surgery at Guy's Hospital in early October. It was touch and go even on the day as to whether it would go ahead or not and nerves were a bit frayed.
All seemed well at first and Joe flew home to begin his recovery. Emma will never forget the impact on her husband of the call from Shane to say the transplant had failed 12 days later.
"His recovery was going pretty well up until that point. Getting that news was such a psychological blow and I believe knocked him back in his recovery.
"It just floored him. He wanted to go back to London to be with Shane but I knew he wasn't well enough to fly back.
"It was like a death. When the news came through I could see it from Catherine's perspective, especially having seen the expectations and hopes she had for it working.
"Shane and Catherine were so selfless about it. They kept thinking about Joe when they had so much else to think about."
Joe and Shane both found a way to cope with the devastating outcome by starting a campaign together to lobby MPs -- north and south -- to consider a change in the law so that people would have to opt out of organ donation.
Under new proposals put forward by Health Minister Edwin Poots in February, people would be presumed to have given consent for their organs to be donated upon their death, unless they have opted out.
Last Saturday the two men were joined by scores of other cyclists for the Life Cycle Challenge they had organised to raise awareness of the proposed changes to the donation system.
As ever they had the full support of their wives even though it meant consuming much of both men's spare time.
Says Emma: "Having seen this process and what is involved in being a living donor has been extremely educational to me.
"If somebody in my family now needed a kidney I wouldn't have the same apprehension about giving them mine. It's not an insurmountable hurdle by any manner or means.
"It has been great for all of us as a family. Despite what happened, every part of it has been positive. It made our children very aware of what it means to donate a kidney, having seen their father do it.
"What really matters now is that people will be more aware of it and more open to it.
"There are not people who would be anti-donation but it's just not contemplated and when asked, most people are in the most dire situation because a family member has died and it might just be too much else for them to consider.
"Hopefully the law will bring about a shift in people's mindsets. More donors are now coming forward as a result of what Joe and Shane are doing and if we can get people talking about it and telling loved ones their wishes that is what we want. "
Catherine and Shane grew up a street apart in south Belfast and became childhood sweethearts when Catherine was just 17.
They have been married 12 years and have three children, twins Pierce and Eve (10) and baby Garrett, one.
Shane was diagnosed with renal failure while at university in 1999 and has had two other transplants, one of which was from a deceased donor in 1999 and lasted seven years.
Joe's gesture came just as the family was dealing with the terrible disappointment that a planned transplant from Shane's sister could not go ahead because she had taken ill.
Catherine (41), who works as a business studies lecturer, said: "It took Shane's sister two years to go through the process and it was devastating when it didn't go ahead.
"Shane just came home one night and said one of the coaches had offered him his kidney and it just seemed that it was meant to happen because of the timing, it was an answer to prayer.
"Shane had been bent over on the football pitch because he was feeling ill and Joe turned to another coach and asked what was wrong. Very few of the coaches knew Shane was ill because we didn't really tell people.
"That one coach Joe asked did know and after that conversation Joe just walked into the changing room and offered Shane his kidney.
"I had no idea who Joe Brolly was and Shane just said, Google him and you will find out. At the time I went and put myself forward for testing too as I couldn't have someone I didn't know donating a kidney. "
Shane's brother also got tested but of the three Joe was the best match.
The emotion of just what it meant to the family for this stranger to make such a selfless gesture to save Shane's life is obvious in Emma's demeanour as for the first time her lovely smile fades and tears fill her eyes as she tries to sum up what she thinks of this unique and remarkable human being.
"I was completely overwhelmed by his compassion. To come up to someone you don't know at all and offer to save his life is just inspirational. I'm just so glad that I have met someone like that and have him in my life. It makes your realise there are people like that out there.
"Joe was so forthright and really controlled and determined throughout the whole process.
"Even before the operation Joe really motivated Shane. He was really enthused and a great person to have around.
"On the day of the operation he gave everyone a laugh. I've seen Shane after a transplant and he is usually worried and anxious but Joe was there and helped him through the process."
When the unthinkable happened and Shane's body rejected the kidney, even though it was devastating for Shane and Catherine, their thoughts and concerns were initially for Joe.
"Nothing prepared us for the kidney being rejected. It was like a death. We were more upset for Joe. Shane felt indebted to Joe.
"I remember when we got back to Belfast and saw Joe for the first time. It was a terrible day. Joe was really devastated and there was a sense of mourning.
"Together he and Shane very quickly came up with the idea of the campaign; they were desperate to turn a negative into a positive.
"The relationship they now have is unbelievable, they are as close if not even closer than brothers. This new campaign has galvanised them and they have questioned if the transplant had succeeded would they have done it.
"Shane doesn't want the focus on him, this is about other peoples' lives and benefiting other people, it isn't about Shane Finnegan.
"If one person dies they can save up to six or seven lives if they donate their organs.
"We just want people to be aware of that now and we want them to talk about it and make their views known to their family.
"So much is now coming out of it that we wouldn't describe what happened as negative in any shape or form."
Nine other people have now come forward to offer a kidney to Shane as a result of this inspirational story.
Catherine and Emma both agree that awareness is crucial. Says Emma: "To see Joe now you wouldn't know he had been through surgery -- you can get back to normal life, you will recover."
The two women are now, like their husbands, counting the blessings of what has been, to say the least, a very eventful and unusual year.
Says Catherine: "I really couldn't have got through it without Emma. Having to look after five young children throughout while going through that process with her husband and she is completely inspirational as well.
"To support your husband to do that, not many women would have allowed them to do that. One of the big things of me is that I have made a friend for life."
Campaigning for a change in the law
Shane Finnegan and Joe Brolly have been campaigning for a change in the law on organ donation, both north and south of the border. They have spent hours lobbying politicians and creating general awareness of the importance of saving lives through organ donation with their Opt for Life campaign.
They want a new law introduced by both governments so that anyone objecting to donating their organs can decide to "opt out" while for everyone else it will be assumed on their death that their organs can be used for lifesaving transplant surgery.
The facts and figures
81.8% increase in deceased organ donors in Northern Ireland over the last five years
22 donors in Northern Ireland in 2007/8
123 people have received a lifesaving organ transplant in the past year in Northern Ireland
40 donors in Northern Ireland in 2012/13
190 people locally who are currently on the waiting list to have a transplant