Now I can live again

When Matt Kimpton needed a transplant, his father offered him one of his kidneys. What followed was an emotional journey for both men
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It's not that big a deal, being terminally ill. Not that I want to piss on the bonfires of people doing telethons and taking children to Disney World and all that - I mean, I went on my fair share of Disney trips as a child, and the people I went with are, as a rule, now dead, so clearly it was justified. It's just that even a life-or-death crisis becomes humdrum given time. Cystic fibrosis, diabetes, asthma... I've got so many diseases, I'm used to it. It's part of who I am, and I know how to deal with it.

It's not that big a deal, being terminally ill. Not that I want to piss on the bonfires of people doing telethons and taking children to Disney World and all that - I mean, I went on my fair share of Disney trips as a child, and the people I went with are, as a rule, now dead, so clearly it was justified. It's just that even a life-or-death crisis becomes humdrum given time. Cystic fibrosis, diabetes, asthma... I've got so many diseases, I'm used to it. It's part of who I am, and I know how to deal with it.

But then my kidneys failed. One too many chest infections, too many courses of nephro-toxic antibiotics, and suddenly... goodbye kidney function, hello uremic poisoning. Your body is a wonderful thing, but without the renal system keeping it in balance, the toxins that creep in every day can't creep out again. Before you know it, you're sleeping 18 hours a day, your blood sugars are crashing, and you're waking in a sweaty duvet and vomiting over the paramedics.

Dialysis helps, of course. Four hours of tedium, three times a week, connected by tubes of blood to the colossal monstrosity laughably known as an artificial kidney. Instead of a million purpose-grown nephrons honed by a billion years of evolution, you have a plastic cylinder full of pipes and a lot of guesswork. You're left woozy and run down; every limb feeling like it has its own little dose of flu. And you never get better. It's not a cure. You've still got kidney failure.

So when Dad offered me one of his finest home-grown kidneys, I should have leapt at the chance. No one with CF had ever had a kidney transplant before, and I couldn't get on the waiting-list because I'd never be well enough for surgery. But live donation could give me the chance to survive. It was my one chance. I should have shouted "Yes!" from the rooftops. But in fact, I said... nothing, really. I just evaded the question, like he'd asked me something embarrassing about my sex life.

I blame my upbringing - which is to say, unfairly, I blame my Dad. If I'd been born in the US, home of the life-affirming sitcom, I'd know how to do this sort of thing. I'd start gushing "I love you, Pop" and learning important life-lessons. But the British don't do that.

Luckily, though, Dad is just as British as me, and took my refusal of a kidney rather as he'd take a guest's turning down of the last piece of cake. He decided I was just being polite, and opted to give it to me anyway.

This put a good bit of strain on the family. While Dad was going through six months of unpleasant tests, Mum had to cope with the prospect of her son and her husband being operated on at the same time. My sister had to put up with me getting the kidney I always wanted while she still wasn't getting a pony. And for all the doctors' assurances that one kidney is enough for anyone, all of us had to deal with death.

Yes, death. Death death death, deathy death death. There, are we all right with it now? If history has taught us anything, it's that everyone ends up dead. This is quite an encouraging thought. Because if death comes to us all, what's to worry about? It can't be that hard. So the fact that there was a one-in-20 chance of me dying wasn't anything to be scared of.

But that's if I died. Whereas. If Dad died...

If Dad died and it was all my fault, and Mum's world collapsed and my sister's fell apart and the family was destroyed and it was all my fault - and if Dad died...

For eight months, I couldn't finish that sentence. I wanted to say something to him about it, but we're British; we can barely talk about shoes, let alone death. Instead, I stewed and fretted and found myself growing, quietly, less and less prepared to go through with it. After all, when friends had offered kidneys, I'd turned them down, unable to justify them taking that tiny, inevitable risk that comes with any surgery. So what was I saying - that I could risk my own father? I felt like the worst son in the world.

Until I remembered Paul. Not that he was a worse son than me - far from it. Paul was my brother. (Is my brother. But he went to Disney World with me. Enough said.) He didn't mean the world to me; that's just a cliché. But he meant my brother to me, and that's a hell of a lot. And to Mum and Dad, of course, he meant their son. More than just a world. So when he was dying... well, you weren't there, and you're not allowed to be now. But one thing I can tell you for nothing is that both of them would cheerfully have sawn off their own arms if they thought it would've helped. But there wasn't a thing in the world that could stop him dying in front of their eyes. And the pain of that, of not being able to help their child... Words cannot tell.

And now, here was something Dad could do to save me. It might not stop me dying - nothing will do that; but it would let me do something with my life. Who was I to tell him he couldn't do that? This wasn't about me risking my father's life for my own selfish gain. It was him, risking his life to help his son. If he was willing to fight that hard for me, literally to the death, if that's what it took... then I had to fight too.

So I said yes. I watched him go to theatre. And a few hours later, I went into the one next door. And when I woke up, he wasn't there.

Oh, of course he survived. It's just that, historically, transplant recipients have felt unable to show discomfort in front of the donor in case they looked ungrateful, and donors have felt the same way in reverse for fear of it coming across as resentment. The answer is to put everyone in separate rooms, and give them enough drugs to fell a rhino.

As a result, I didn't see Dad for three days. Perhaps that was for the best, because it meant I could have messages of love and gratitude couriered to him by eager relatives without having to actually speak to him. I don't think, if we'd been face to face, I could ever have said what the experience meant to me. To wake up, with a gaping wound in my gut, tubes poking out of everywhere and no end of distressing bowel-related complications... feeling amazing.

You get used to the way you feel on dialysis. You start thinking that's how everyone feels. When I was discharged, 10 days later, I rediscovered what it means to be awake and able to do things. I can eat and drink what I want; I can waste my life on the internet instead of a dialysis machine; I can think and laugh and fail to communicate honestly and openly with people I love. I am, in a word, me.

Whereas Dad... Well, he's still Dad, albeit an ounce lighter and with slightly higher blood pressure. I was expecting maybe some sort of astonishing bonding experience, where the scales would fall from our emotional eyes, and we'd sweep one another up in a closing-credits hug. But no.

There was a moment, as we met again for the first time and saw one another's scars, and shared the indescribable knowledge that, "Look, that's a part of you in there", when I felt the unpatriotic pull of tears. If I didn't know better, I might almost have said I saw Dad feel the same, before we manfully pulled ourselves together. But then we returned to exactly the sort of bluff, stilted, socially incompetent awkwardness that made Britain what it is today. He gave me a firm handshake, I got him rather a nice hat, and now, apparently, we're quits.

I'm still dreadfully ill, of course. The kidney will fail eventually, and every day's a gift. Only now, every day's a gift from my Dad. He risked everything to save me, and it's a debt I can never repay. But apparently... it's no big deal.

To help someone to live after your death, join the National Organ Donor Register at www.uktransplant.org.uk

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