Belfast Telegraph

Dad gave BBC's Stephen Watson kidney 29 years ago - now he needs a new one and is back on dialysis

Popular presenter opens up about needing donation, and how he is coping with continual dialysis

Stephen Watson
Stephen Watson
Stephen Watson being interviewed by the Belfast Telegraph’s Claire McNeilly
Stephen Watson with Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy
Stephen Watson with Jonathan Rea
Stephen Watson with Ireland rugby captain Rory Best
Stephen Watson reporting from the NorthWest 200
Jo-Anne Dobson and her son Mark

By Claire McNeilly

To look at TV presenter Stephen Watson, or watch him at work, you wouldn't think he's suffering from a serious illness.

You still see him fronting sports reports on our screens every night, making television documentaries, or charging around the world after our top golfers, so it's hard to believe that the 47-year-old broadcast journalist is on dialysis a staggering four times a week.

Stephen Watson being interviewed by the Belfast Telegraph’s Claire McNeilly
Stephen Watson being interviewed by the Belfast Telegraph’s Claire McNeilly

He received a kidney from his dad Cecil in a life-saving transplant operation 29 years ago, but the Belfast man now needs a new one, which, ironically, he only discovered while he was making a programme for the BBC about the pioneering work being undertaken at Belfast City Hospital's renal unit.

"My first transplant has lasted nearly 30 years and I always knew that it would need replaced," he said.

"I was aware that this day would end up coming... but it has probably come sooner than I thought it was going to."

Until he finds a donor the sports reporter must continue to check in to the hospital regularly for lengthy, exhausting sessions, but he steadfastly refuses to let it get in the way of work.

"I can't go two days without having dialysis," he said.

"Travel is more difficult but so far I've managed - and I'll continue to manage because of the amazing staff who work tirelessly to plan my dialysis and help me achieve my schedule.

"I do five-hour sessions four mornings a week from 6.30am until after noon in the renal unit at Belfast City Hospital and then I go straight to work until 7.30pm, or sometimes 11pm.

"I want to maintain as normal a life as I possibly can.

Joe Brolly and Shane Finnegan
Joe Brolly and Shane Finnegan

"Dialysis leaves you pretty washed out. I do an extra session a week more than anyone else and that keeps me feeling a lot better and less tired. It's tough at times but I was always determined from the start that I wasn't going to let it get in the way.

"I've had dialysis in Paris for the Ryder Cup, I've had it in Ballyliffin for the (Irish Open) golf tournament and I've had it in Dundee for the Open Golf Championship.

"I've also got it planned for the Masters at Augusta this April, for the Isle of Man TT at the end of May and other places just in case a transplant doesn't come along."

While his left arm is hooked up to the dialysis machine during treatment, Stephen makes maximum use of his right, either to "catch up on work on my iPad" or to do "something worthwhile".

"I decided to do some voluntary work for Age NI so I use the time to call older people who are lonely," he revealed.

"I ring one or two people at the minute three or four times a week for a wee chat. I talk to people living on their own, who don't have a lot of family or access to the outside world, people who get very lonely, and they really appreciate a chat with someone."

Having been teetotal for over two-and-a-half years and thanks to an extremely controlled diet - no fast food, chocolate or his beloved ham and cheese toasties - he's very trim and currently weighs just over 11 stone.

"I'm on a low potassium, low phosphate diet, like most kidney patients on dialysis," he explained.

"I can't eat potatoes, any sauces, chocolate, fast food, chips, processed food, ice cream...

"I'm on a fluid restriction of 1,500mls a day, which I find the most difficult thing, because I used to drink seven or eight litres every day."

But it's not all bad and he allows himself the odd treat.

"The diet is restrictive and it's difficult but you get used to it," he said.

Although he admits that he desperately misses "pizza, cheese, Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and bananas".

He added: "Once every couple of weeks I'll have a matchbox of cheese or a ham and cheese toastie, which is one of the things I love most in the world."

Not only does he look physically well as a result of his strict regime, he also hasn't skipped a day of work due to sickness since he started working for the Beeb 20 years ago.

Prior to being poached by his current employer, the Queen's University politics graduate spent seven years at UTV.

"I haven't missed a day's work since the start of my dialysis and I haven't missed one day's work on the sick at the BBC since I joined in 1999," he said.

"It's quite a record - and that's having a transplant all that time. It's probably because my working day is not 9-5."

He added: "If I meet someone in the street they wouldn't actually know that I've got an issue going on and that makes me feel quite proud because I'm just determined to maintain as normal a life as I possibly can working around the dialysis."

Stephen said the programme he produced - Life On The List - which aired on BBC1 as part of the True North series on Monday, wasn't motivated by his own issues, nor did he consider including himself in it.

"It was to mark 50 years of the renal unit and I always wanted to do something to highlight organ donation," he said.

"Obviously, because I had a kidney transplant I have an interest in telling the story, but we started making the documentary before my own kidney showed signs of wear and tear.

"It was just a coincidence that I found out during the making of the programme that I went back on list."

Among the stories featured was that of former MLA Jo-Anne Dobson, who gave a kidney to her son Mark last March, with consultant transplant surgeon Tim Brown performing both procedures.

"If you're going to have kidney problem, Northern Ireland is the place to have it because Belfast City Hospital is a world leader in transplantation," Stephen added.

"The live donor programme means they've increased the number of transplants per year from 30 to over 120, and they have got more live donors per head of the population than anywhere else in the world.

"It's an incredible success story. I wanted to focus on the job the staff were doing and on the people who'd agreed to tell their pretty amazing stories in the programme."

While he waits patiently for a new organ, Stephen said "the distraction of work" keeps him going.

"I've always thrown myself into work. I enjoy my work. It's always been very important to me. I'm very passionate about sport and my job," he said.

So far it hasn't been difficult - or expensive - to arrange dialysis abroad, but he said Brexit could change all that, "which is a worry for dialysis patients".

"Under European legislation at the moment there's a reciprocal agreement between dialysis units in European countries that they will facilitate your dialysis and the costs incurred are soaked up by each trust," he explained.

"There is a small cost for having dialysis in America, but that's one of those things - probably $500 a session, depending on where you go. It could be $1,000 in New York or $300 somewhere less touristy."

Following his first transplant nearly three decades ago, Stephen led "a completely normal life" until recently.

"I never took the transplant for granted and I always looked after it but I ate what I wanted and drank what I wanted and played sport," he said.

"That's the thing about kidney transplantation, it gives you your life back the way it was before.

"It was tough back then because my mum (Maureen) and my sister (42 year-old Katherine) had both my dad and me in hospital at the same time... but it created an even closer bond between me and my dad."

As to how they're coping this time round, he said: "I'm sure my family worries but they see me taking it in my stride and they know it will be fine."

In a career full of highlights, Stephen cites covering Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell winning their Major championships as "jumping out".

"They were moments of Northern Ireland sporting history and we were on the inside of that and I feel very privileged to have done that," he said.

"I also feel very fortunate to be able to say they've always been good friends of mine."

He cited the death of road racer Joey Dunlop shortly after winning a hat-trick at the TT races in 2000, adding: "That's a major moment in my career.

"It affected me more than anything I've covered because I'd got to know him particularly well."
The popular sports presenter has had his detractors nevertheless, and three years ago a petition entitled 'Stop Stephen Watson wasting our TV licence on trips abroad' appeared on the change.org website.

But it's not the sort of thing that bothers him.

"I just laughed," he said.

"I thought it was hilarious."

Although he admitted that his "number one priority at the moment is to get a kidney", he said he agreed to speak out "reluctantly" to help others who find themselves in a similar predicament.

"Two or three of my friends have been tested, but they're not a match for me," he revealed.

"Blood group has a bit to do with it, but it's all about tissue typing.

"Obviously my dad was a perfect match for me because he's a relative.

"But now anybody can donate to anybody else."

Among the high-profile donors is All-Ireland winning former Derry footballer and GAA pundit Joe Brolly, who gave a kidney to PR man Shane Finnegan in 2012 after hearing he had been waiting six years for a transplant.

Often it takes people who are in the public eye to put themselves out there to raise the profile of the problem.

That is why Stephen has agreed to speak out.

And he wants to do it "for the doctors and nurses and patients" who've asked him to go public to increase awareness about the need for donors.

"There has been loads of reaction to the programme already and we want it to have a huge impact on organ donation," he said.

"I'm hoping that many people who need a transplant will get one off the back of it."

"Everyone is walking around with two kidneys and they only need one, and it's a fairly straightforward operation.

"Northern Ireland people have a very generous and altruistic nature. We're the donor capital of the world here.

"To donate to a stranger is a remarkable thing. And it's happening regularly in Northern Ireland."

He is not overly concerned about his own personal plight at present.

"I will get a kidney eventually," he said.

"If I don't get a kidney I'll stay on dialysis. I have made plans for my job this year right through to August time just in case I don't get one."

Belfast Telegraph

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