Family reflects on mum’s 47 years with a transplant
David Green’s late wife Judy was something of a medical miracle. Not only was she one of the first people in the UK to receive a transplant from a living donor – her mother Hazel – but that kidney lasted an incredible 47 years, until her death aged 66 in June this year.
When Judy, who lived in Essex, was diagnosed with kidney failure in 1975, she was told she would die in two weeks if she didn’t go on dialysis or have a transplant. But her mother’s gift meant she could go on to become a mum herself and lead a full and happy life. Now husband David has set up a tribute fund to raise money for Kidney Research UK in her memory.
Mother, grandmother and avid traveller
Former carpenter David, 73, says, “The thing Judy and I loved to do most was travelling together. I think we visited 31 countries altogether, some of them multiple times.
“She loved being a grandmother to her two grandsons Eric, seven, and Arthur, five, and was immensely proud of her son Rob who became an intensive care consultant and transplant lead at Coventry Hospital. She always thought he’d been inspired to be a doctor because he spent so much time in hospitals waiting for her to have appointments!”
The pair met in 1973 on David’s 24th birthday, in Judy’s parents’ pub. “I was there with friends from the rugby club and she walked out the back door and we started chatting. She dated a friend of mine originally and then later on that year we went on a rugby club trip up the Thames and that was when we really got to know each other.”
At the beginning of 1975, Judy developed toothache. “She went backwards and forwards between the dentist and the doctor. Initially they thought it might be leukaemia, then she was referred to Guy’s Hospital, and they discovered she had cystic kidneys which had shrunk to around an inch in size. And I should know, as I saw them in a jar after they were taken out!”
One of the first to receive a kidney from a living donor
At the end of 1974, only 127 kidney transplants had been carried out, of which 26 were from living donors, and he thinks Judy’s could have been the first one carried out at Guy’s. David says, “It was really experimental. She’d been on dialysis but she didn’t like it at all so a transplant was her best option. One of the first questions she asked the doctor was, ‘Can I have children?’ She was in hospital three months before the operation.”
Judy’s parents Doug and Hazel were tested, and her mother found to be a match. “I didn’t hesitate,” Hazel says. “You’d do anything to keep your child alive.”
Amazingly, given the length of time Hazel’s kidney eventually lasted, initially it was touch and go whether Judy’s body would accept the kidney.
“For 21 days, it didn’t work,” says David. “Every day they were giving her these new drugs which cost £100 a bag and on the last day, they told me to tell Judy’s parents it hadn’t worked. I said, ‘No – I’ll send them up to you and you tell them.’”
But when Hazel travelled to the hospital the following day, she was greeted by the ward sister telling her it had actually worked. “I still remember the moment when the sister told me it had worked. It was wonderful,” she says.
David says, “We always joked that Hazel liked a gin and tonic, and so did Judy, and the kidney didn’t notice the change!”
Judy always maintained David first proposed when she was on a dialysis machine, although he says he can’t remember. “I did it properly once she’d recovered, in a local restaurant.” The pair married in 1977, and their son Rob was born in 1982.
More medical struggles
But the transplant was not the end of Judy’s medical dramas. Although her kidney functioned well, the anti-rejection drugs caused other issues.
“She had skin cancer which they managed for 30 years, which they associated with it. And at one point in 1990, she had an aneurysm. The first question the neurologist asked her was ‘Have you had a transplant?’ Fortunately, it hadn’t burst. And then the tablets also caused her bones to weaken leading to hip and knee replacements. She was 19 when she had the transplant, and only around 21 when she had her first hip done.
“She was just incredibly resilient. We had a car crash and she had a ruptured bowel. The renal doctor said, ‘Only about one in five survive, how you’ve survived it I just don’t know.’ She was just one of those people who got on with life.”
After having had breast cancer in the noughties, Judy developed secondary breast cancer in her liver, spine and lung, and had chemotherapy for two years. Then in June this year, she developed an issue with her blood pressure. She was admitted to hospital on a Thursday but died the following Tuesday. The couple had been out for a walk, and then in the afternoon she collapsed.
“It was just so sudden,” David says. “We were chatting away in the morning and then at 11 minutes past one, she passed away. But it was very peaceful.”
Before she died, David and Judy had discussed fundraising for Kidney Research UK. As well as earmarking some money in their wills, David has been raising money since Judy’s death.
“I’ve been selling some of her clothes to raise money, and she had a fantastic bead collection which has raised money too,” he says.
“We had a Thanksgiving service and a cremation, and it was lovely to see so many people there. We have a big group of friends we call The Mob, who we’ve known for years, and they’ve been so supportive.
“Judy was the kind of person who was not interested in talking about herself. She was more interested in other people’s problems. But having benefitted from incredible research into kidney disease and transplantation, she was always keen to spread the word about how long her kidney had lasted. She just wanted to encourage other people to go ahead with it.”
Shaping sons' future
Judy’s son Dr Rob Green, 40, critical care consultant and Coventry Hospital clinical lead for organ donation, says:
“When I was growing up, I always knew that my grandmother had donated a kidney to my mum, and that it had changed Mum’s life immeasurably. They had already had a great relationship, which was only cemented by the live donation, and they were so close they were often mistaken for sisters.
“Mum knew she was special, and she appreciated that kidney every day. As a result, we were the kind of family where illness wasn’t hidden. We spoke openly about it and I think it probably helped to shape my decision to become a doctor.
“But although I knew that my grandmother had helped my mum get better, it wasn’t until I’d done my first couple of years of medical school that I realised just how fortunate Mum had been. My understanding of how much she'd had to go through grew exponentially and it felt pretty astonishing.
“Coupled with that was my overwhelming sense that I wouldn’t exist and my children wouldn’t exist without the medical knowledge that has only happened within the last 50 or 60 years. For me to be born was rare, and to be born without complications even rarer.
“My ability to be amazed by what medicine, medical science and research can accomplish has just carried on. What we can do now in terms of medicine and what is achievable in terms of being able to give people a life they wouldn’t have had even 50 years ago, is amazing. It’s one of the best jobs in the world.”
Read more kidney experiences
Why not make a donation now?
(Every £ counts)