Thanks, grandson for the gift of life

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 05/07/2014
Sharon van der Gulik
ROSS GIBLIN/ Fairfax NZ
BACK ON FORM: Sharon van der Gulik with grandson Matt Heal, who gave her one of his kidneys. Her transformation in just five weeks has been ‘‘unreal’’, she says. Heal said it still hurt to laugh but otherwise he and his grandmother had fully recovered. 

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Grandmother Sharon van der Gulik had been ready to give up on life when her grandson offered her a second chance.

Matt Heal, 27, donated one of his kidneys to her at Wellington Hospital five weeks ago. Yesterday, they both sat in van der Gulik's Upper Hutt home fully recovered, with just two working kidneys between them.

Before the operation, van der Gulik, 68, had been living with renal failure for more than two years. She could barely walk and needed 15 hours of dialysis a week.

Two years ago she was given just weeks to live and, even after she clung on, dialysis had become so awful that she did not want to continue with treatment past 70.

"I had already faced death and come to terms with it," she said.

But when doctors told her she would be eligible for a transplant if she could find a donor, it didn't take long for family and friends to offer their own kidneys.

"Ten people offered - it was mindblowing. It felt like I had received a miracle, like winning Lotto 10 times over."

It was Heal who was determined to put himself forward. He said his grandparents had helped him through some rough times when he was younger. He called the donation his "good deed" and a chance to give something back.

"I didn't have any kids, I didn't have any responsibility. It made sense for it to be me."

On May 27, doctors spent five hours removing his kidney, sewing him up and transplanting the organ into his grandmother.

Heal said it still hurt to laugh and, for a while, he could feel his insides shifting into the new kidney-shaped gap, but otherwise he felt fully recovered. He will need yearly check-ups, but should be able to live a normal life.

For his grandmother, though, the change has been dramatic. Two months ago she could barely stand; yesterday she was baking scones.

"The transformation now, it has been unreal," she said. It was likely the transplant would give her at least another decade of life.

Wellington Hospital renal clinical leader Murray Leikis, who supervised the transplant, said it was rare for someone as young as Heal to volunteer to give up a kidney for an older person, but he had been a healthy and eager donor.

"It is an unusual age gap," he said. "We do have concerns about young people donating, because they have a lot of life left."

New Zealand has a severe shortage of donors, with more than 400 people on the waiting list for life-saving organs, usually a kidney. Every year about 160 people receive a donated organ, but many more wait for years. Some will die waiting.

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About half of all transplanted kidneys came from people who had died, but far more donors from both the living and the dead were needed, Leikis said.

KINDNESS COSTS

More people would donate organs and save lives if the government agreed to pay their wages while they recovered, Sharon van der Gulik believes.

She said she had to help keep grandson Matt Heal financially afloat during the six weeks he needed to recover from donating his kidney.

Heal is being paid $206.21 a week by Work and Income, roughly the same as the unemployment or Jobseeker Support payment.

"That's not even enough to cover half my mortgage," he said.

"Do they want me to live in a sleeping bag for six weeks?"

Van der Gulik has written to Health Minister Tony Ryall, calling for better financial support for donors.

Ryall told her more funding had been allocated in this year's Budget, and a private bill, put forward by National list MP Cam Calder, would raise payments to 80 per cent of a person's wage.

The bill is still waiting to be drawn from the ballot in Parliament.

- The Dominion Post

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