Surgeon who helped Jo-Anne Dobson give gift of life to son Mark with kidney transplant
It's not every day you get to meet a superhero.
But that's how Jo-Anne Dobson's son Mark describes the medic who performed his life-saving transplant operation after his mum made the ultimate sacrifice by donating her kidney to him two days ago.
Both patients are now recovering well in different wards at Belfast City Hospital after successive surgeries on Tuesday at the hands of experienced Northern Ireland Consultant Transplant Surgeon Tim Brown.
Mr Brown, who has carried out more than 400 transplants during his career, said the operations went smoothly for Jo-Anne and Mark, and he applauded her bravery at becoming a donor.
"It's early days but I'm very pleased to say that, to date, everything has gone according to plan," he said.
"Kidney transplants can be complicated. In living donor surgery there's no room for complacency. We don't count our chickens. The only thing I'm superstitious about is kidney transplants because they're so unpredictable."
Official figures show that last year 74 adult living donor transplants were performed in the Belfast centre, which was the highest number in the UK in 2016/17, followed by Manchester, which racked up 68.
On Tuesday Mark - who had previously undergone three gruelling four-hour sessions of dialysis every week - became transplant number 24 this year, while former MLA Jo-Anne was live donor 11, in Belfast City Hospital,
Mark, whose 25th birthday is next week, had a previous transplant in 2009 and the pair went through a long series of demanding medical tests to ensure that 52-year-old Jo-Anne's kidney would be a perfect match.
"Donors are heroes; the bar of risk is very, very high for living donors but whether living or dead they're the ones who make a difference," said Mr Brown.
He also paid tribute to the work Jo-Anne has done to raise the profile of organ donation in Northern Ireland, adding that they "really got to know each other and became friends" when Mark fell ill and subsequently became his patient last year.
In their first interview after surgery, a somewhat "groggy and sore" mother and her "over the moon" son said it "feels wonderful" to be able to allow themselves to finally become so excited about the future.
Mum-of-two Jo-Anne said that both operations - her procedure took place at 8.30am, followed by Mark's at 12.30pm - were very successful, adding that although she hopes to be discharged today, her recovery is expected to take up to six months.
"I feel proud and honoured to have been able to donate my kidney to Mark," she said.
"He told me the night before the surgery that it felt like Christmas Eve. I gave him life when I gave birth to him almost 25 years ago and it was so special to have done it again."
The Waringstown native said she will never forget the moment she was reunited with Mark post-surgery, as the true enormity of their shared experience sunk in.
"When I walked into his ward and saw his wee face, which looked so white and ashen, I just said 'We did it!' she revealed.
"We hugged and cried and that's a special moment that will live with me for ever.
"Looking back, the worst thing were the nerves the night before. I was in tears going down to surgery - I kept thinking it was a beautiful, surreal moment. Mark gave me a hug and told me how proud he was of me.
"I was going first and Mark was coming afterwards, being operated on by the same surgeon and I felt a real sense of being a mother preparing the way for her son. It felt right and good."
Describing Mr Brown as a "firm friend", Jo-Anne, who is the Northern Ireland ambassador for Kidney Care UK, said neither of them had any reservations about putting themselves in his "safe, very experienced hands".
"I can't thank Tim enough for what he has done. Mark calls him our superhero," she said.
"A couple of the other patients clapped when I walked past them after surgery but I'm just an ordinary person and it's people like Tim who perform miracles like this every day."
Mark admitted that he feels "a bit tired" but it hasn't stopped him from trying to persuade Tim to let him out so he can go to watch a Northern Ireland football match this weekend.
"I feel like a new man. On Tuesday my mum gave me the ultimate gift," he said.
"She's the best mother for giving me her kidney and for actually giving me my life back.
"She was really brave and I know I'm never really going to be able to repay her for this.
"I'm so happy I'm getting my life back. I'll be glad to see the back of the dialysis, but I will miss the nurses and the other patients that I've gotten to know in recent times and I've promised to go back and visit them."
Meanwhile, Mr Brown said that as a professional performing such "daunting" operations gives him a real sense of purpose.
"I think I've the best job in the world," he said.
"It's a tremendous privilege to be able to do what we do here and be involved with the whole renal transplant and renal failure team in Northern Ireland. It gives me a great deal of job satisfaction."