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Every day I appreciate how life turned out thanks to a kidney transplant from my brother

03 March 2021

Trainee teacher Mark Zoel is grateful for the life-saving kidney transplant from his brother that put him back on track for life and his career.

The 30-year-old London blogger is determined to raise awareness of kidney disease by telling his story and taking part in our 850 Challenge to raise money for research.

Mark Zoel and his brother Jason
Mark Zoel and his brother Jason

With regular blogs and posts to update followers on his Instagram page Transplant Fitness and You Tube channel Transplant Fitness, Mark’s dream is for research to make life easier for people living with kidney disease.

“I was lucky enough to not have to go through dialysis, yet it was still tough,” he said. “If research could make life better for kidney patients that would be amazing. Not having to take so many tablets would be great for a start.”

Mark was 17 years old when he was diagnosed with lupus which seriously damaged his kidneys.

He had been ill for 12months with lots of flu-like symptoms, including a temperature, but had been prescribed antibiotics with no formal diagnosis.

“Eventually my GP ran some blood tests and I was sent to hospital for proper checks.”

What he expected to be a quick trip, turned into a six-week stay in two different hospitals, while medics eventually diagnosed him with lupus.

Semi-professional football scholarship ground to a halt

“At the time I felt really sick and kept getting strange blood test results,” he said. “I was given IV fluids and antibiotics. When I was finally allowed home, I was put on Prednisolone steroids to help reduce inflammation which made me blow up and suffer from a side effect called Moon Face.”

Despite trips back and forth to Hammersmith Hospital he never knew why he had been struck down by the disease.

“There was no clue as to why this had happened. I was super healthy, enjoying sports every day. Nobody in my wider family had any known kidney issues.

“I was playing football and had signed up to a semi-professional football scholarship to go to university to study sport science. All of this ground to a halt when I got the diagnosis.”

Mark went to university, but because of the steroids, he went from super fit and slim to putting on a lot of weight.

“I felt like I lost myself. It was a difficult time. I had low energy. My head wanted to get up and go, but my body wanted to stay in bed. I was exhausted. Kidney function was super low, creatinine levels super high.

“I lost all my motivation which is not like the real me. It was like I was trapped in a body that didn’t want to do as it was told.”

Fed up feeling ill, Mark decided to start researching lupus to see what others had done.

He became vegetarian which helped control things and took on a healthier diet. Slowly, he returned to exercise.

“My mindset changed. I was playing football again and looking after myself.”

Mark Zoel in hospital
Mark Zoel in hospital

My dream became being a primary school teacher

On graduating, Mark’s first job was working for an educational agency called Numberfit teaching maths to young children using sport and exercise as a motivator. “They danced to times tables. It worked! They learnt well and we all had fun.”

But his dream was to become a primary school teacher, so he landed a post as a teaching assistant at Oakington Manor Primary School in Brent, Wembley.

The aim was to use the job as a springboard to gain his official teaching qualification, but that turned into the year he fell ill again and was now in need of a transplant.

“I was loving work, in my spare time enjoying playing football, cycling, park runs, but all the time my kidney function was failing and got down to 15%.”

Mark Zoel with his brother Jason
Mark Zoel with his brother Jason

Mark had to stop all of his studies and put his dream of becoming a teacher on hold.

Mark's close-knit family watched as his health deteriorated and in the summer of 2018 six people put their names forward to be living donors for him.

The first three to test were his mum Diane, his younger brother Jason and his best friend Noreen.

Jason and his mum were perfect matches, and it was agreed Jason would go forward as he was so fit and healthy. In December 2018 the operation went ahead.

“I feel lucky. Every single day I’m appreciative of how life has turned out thanks to the kidney transplant from my brother.

“The week of surgery was actually fun, which might sound weird, but I got to lay in a bed next to my brother, joking and chatting while we recovered. We are a close family, but I became even closer during that time.

I blog to help others having a kidney transplant

“My poor wife, Rima, who had been with me through everything right from the start was a nervous wreck and so was my mum, but I was excited.”

Leading up to surgery Mark decided to record the journey as a way of helping others understand, so he began blogging and set up a You Tube channel called Transplant Fitness.

​"During my transplant, I wish I had someone who knew the answers to questions I didn't even know I had. I hope to act as that support network to anyone who needs it!"

“Reading people’s stories has been helpful to me so I hoped by blogging myself, it might help others.”

Mark had complete faith in the doctors and surgeons at Hammersmith Hospital and the main thing on his mind was hoping Jason was OK.

However, after transplant surgery, the joy of knowing his kidneys were working properly soon turned to anxiety when, after two weeks, the kidney showed signs of rejection.

He was back in hospital for Christmas, given an alternative anti-rejection drug and put on a low dose of Prednisolone steroids which he still takes today.

“The drugs given to me when I was 17 for lupus were really powerful and dampened my immune system which is why I needed an alternative anti-rejection drug.”

Meanwhile, the steroid side effects of being hungry all the time, craving sugars, and mood swings remain tough, but he knows he must take them to stay alive.

Mark Zoel in recovery
Mark Zoel in recovery

Research made new life possible

Two years on and Mark decided he was ready to try and achieve his teaching qualification once again, this time with the fear of Covid-19 making things harder.

“One of the worst aspects of being ill came in October 2020 just before the UK’s second Covid lockdown when I developed a high temperature and struggled to breathe. I feared the worst.

“I went to the local walk-in centre and was taken to the Ealing Hospital Covid ward where I spent two weeks."

Mark Zoel and his wife Rima
Mark Zoel and his wife Rima

Three days were in the intensive care unit on oxygen It was a frightening time.

“Turns out I had a pneumonia strain called PCP. Only people with suppressed immune systems get it. Being surrounded by extremely sick people on a Covid ward with the fear of a deadly virus as a vulnerable kidney patient was awful.”

Now fully recovered Mark wants to pay back by taking part in the 850 Challenge to keep up his fitness in lockdown and raise funds for Kidney Research UK.

He and his wife Rima walk every day to clock up the miles.

“Now I feel really good and am working hard toward qualifying as a teacher. All thanks to the gift of life from my brother and the research that made it possible.”

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