My Experience of Renal Failure and its Treatment
Brian Quin, SM
Issue 12, April 2004
Tuesday, 9 June 1992 was a very important date in my life story. On that day, at Wellington Hospital, my brother Alan gave me one of his kidneys.
It was in some ways a resurrection experience for me. For the previous 15 months my life had been dominated to a degree by the demands of haemo-dialysis. Three times a week I had to do five hours of actual dialysis. The 'setting up' and the 'finishing off' that went with each session added another hour to each end of the process, meaning that kidney dialysis normally involved twenty-one or so hours a week.
Not that all of it was what you might call 'dead' time. Once the actual dialysis process was going, and if no hiccups occurred (and they didn't happen often because I had a good machine and had been well-trained in Wellington Hospital to 'go solo'), I could relax in my armchair next to the machine, and listen to my little radio, read, write letters, or mark school exercise books.
But being on haemo-dialysis did limit my ability to move about the country. If I wanted to be away from my home base, at that time I was living with the Marist Community at St Patrick's College, Kilbirnie, Wellington, for more than a couple of days, I could only go to places where I had access to another dialysis machine. In those days that meant, in the North Island, Auckland, Hamilton and Palmerston North. And before I went, usually a couple of weeks prior, I would have to contact the hospital whose machines I hoped to use to see if there was space, and also to have an HIV test, because I would be sharing the use of the machine with others. So I couldn't simply go up and off in a day or two.
Having a successful transplant has meant liberation from all that, as well as being able to slowly resume many activities and interests I was unable to keep going while on dialysis, or in the months of sickness before dialysis began. A healthy transplant meant not only being free of the literal bond to 'the machine', but I had something like normal levels of energy and health once again.
There is a 'down-side' because of the drugs I had, and still have to take to suppress the immune system and so minimise the chances of rejection of the kidney. I was on Prednisone in tapering-off doses for two and a half years. Being on a steroid made me ineligible for Olympic selection, a friend told me, and made my face 'moon' a bit. Longer-term, however, the main problem has been skin cancers. One result of immuno-suppression is that the effects of sunburn I received 30 to 40 years ago, when people were generally much less sun conscious than now, are coming through as cancers. I have had more than 60 lesions surgically removed over the last 8 or 9 years. No melanomas as yet! A surgeon at Palmerston North Hospital once remarked: "Father Quin, you keep me in my skills!" I have to have regular checks by my GP and a dermatologist at Wellington Hospital, and have to wear a specially made broad brimmed hat and sun block when outdoors for more than a few minutes. Otherwise my health has been pretty good. Remarkably, in view of my immune-suppressed status, I cannot recall having had a serious cold since 1990.
My original kidney problem was genetic in origin: polycystic kidneys. It's a fairly rare type of kidney disorder, in which the kidneys slowly develop masses of lumps all over them and lose functionality. The problem usually becomes evident only in middle age, by which time the kidneys have lost about 90% of their function.
When I was medically checked before entering the seminary, at the age of 27, I was found to have high blood pressure, which often is a sign of approaching kidney failure, but in 1964 that wasn't detected. I was put on a small amount of medication each day and had to have three monthly or so blood pressure checks.
Just after moving to teach at Hato Paora College near Feilding in 1990, one of these checks found my blood pressure up markedly from earlier. Further investigations by my G.P. at the time, and a physician in Palmerston North, led to my referral to Dr Peter Hatfield of the Wellington Hospital Renal Department who diagnosed ESRF (end stage renal failure) in October 1990. In March 1991 I began haemo-dialysis at Palmerston North, but soon moved to Wellington to do home dialysis training at the training unit in Owen Street, Newtown.
It was just before I left Palmerston North that the possibility of a familial transplant was mentioned to me. Up till then, I was on the transplant list, awaiting a donor, but thinking only of a cadaver organ, one from someone who had died recently. But one day the supervising doctor at Palmerston North hospital asked me if I had a family member who might donate me a kidney.
I wrote to my brother Alan, having prayed about it a good deal first, and he rang me up within minutes of getting my letter to say he would if he could. What a man!
I think it best if he tells his own side of the story.
Brian Quin SM, 13 March 2004
Brian Quin SM is a priest who works at the Marist Archives in Wellington