Wollen Michelmore’s Chief Executive Speaks About Life Changing Transplant Operation
Chris Hart, Chief Executive of Wollen Michelmore, and his wife Liz have spoken for the first time about their life-changing transplant operation.
Chris and Liz have decided to tell their story to encourage more people to go on the Organ Donation Register – and, more importantly let their family know about their wishes – and to promote awareness of World Kidney Day on 14th March.
Liz donated a kidney to Chris who was on the transplant list and requiring a lifesaving kidney.
The couple, who live in Newton Abbot and will have been married for 30 years later this month, are still on the road to full recovery after transplant operations at Bristol’s Southmead Hospital in November last year.
Despite this, they are both back at work at Devon law firm Wollen Michelmore, where Chris is Chief Executive, and are able to look back on the past few months which changed their lives.
Problems began for Chris ten years ago; Liz recalls:
“Ten years ago Chris went for a routine asthma check. They suggested he had a blood test. The following day he was told that he’d been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease.
“We quickly saw a renal consultant and she predicted that Chris might be on the transplant list within 18 months and would have a transplant within five years.”
“At that stage, my kidney function was already so poor that it was inevitable that I would eventually need a transplant. The cause of the illness has never been identified.”
With careful management, care, medication, the right diet and monthly blood tests it was more than nine years before Chris actually went onto the transplant list. By that stage, in early 2018, his kidney function had dropped to 13%. Chris says:
“There is a national kidney transplant waiting list which is operated according to strict criteria as to how donations are allocated. Once on the list, you could be contacted at any time, day or night, if a kidney becomes available.”
Liz had volunteered to be a living donor. She said: “I had a conversation and said I would like to be considered.”
But there was a sting in the tail at first when she revealed:
“All of the initial tests were carried out and I was told I was not a good enough match!”
Chris’s brother had also very generously offered to be a living donor. He was a better match but after several months of tests was told at the eleventh hour that he wasn’t suitable to donate.
At that stage, Chris and Liz were told that they might be included in a ‘Paired Living Kidney Donation’ programme where couples are paired with others to make donations easier.
But it was all change In August when Liz received a phone call from Southmead Hospital saying that she was now able to donate a kidney direct to Chris:
“I told them I was struggling to understand this. But they were brilliant and scheduled an urgent meeting with a consultant. We had a long discussion about all of the issues with him. He said that Chris was a difficult match in that he had a relatively rare blood group and challenging tissue matching. We were told that he was very unlikely to get a kidney via the deceased donation route within a sensible time frame and that his health would further decline. That was inevitable.”
“The average wait for a kidney on the transplant list is three years. I was told I had only a 50% chance of getting one within five years. We had a conversation about Liz now being considered suitable for living donation, even though she wasn’t a blood relative. We were told that the management and drugs were now much better for kidneys that were not a good match. The other option was just to keep waiting.”
“Everything happened so quickly. We went through all the necessary checks and pre-op tests and then I got a date for the operation – November 6th.”
In a sense, the call couldn’t have come at a more difficult time for the Harts from a business perspective as Wollen Michelmore were in the midst of their merger with Toller Beattie in Barnstaple and at the time that the operation was confirmed in mid-October, Liz was living and working in Barnstaple during the week. Liz admits: “At the time it was all a bit scary” and Chris added: “It was the fear of the unknown.”
On 6th November, Liz went down into the operating theatre first for an operation lasting about three hours. Chris remembers:
“They removed Liz’s kidney first and checked all was well. At the time, I knew nothing about Liz’s condition and her op. After some hours I was just told let’s go. I was wheeled to the pre-op room and after a while saw Liz being wheeled past from theatre into the room next door. I walked into theatre via her room and talked to her.”
Liz had no idea he was there! After Chris came out of theatre, they both spent the first three days on different high dependency wards with their family, including son James, 25, and daughter Becky, 19, flicking between the two. They were sent home after five days to start their recovery.
The good news is that the Chris’ new kidney started to work immediately and within a couple of days, his kidney function had improved significantly. Following discharge from Southmead, Chris underwent medical checks at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital three times a week for the first few weeks. After three months this has reduced to weekly visits to the transplant clinic.
Chris will be on anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life. The number of tablets totalled around fifty a day to begin with but are now down to twenty. There will continue to be very regular blood tests and consultant appointments. Liz will also have regular checks to ensure her remaining kidney is working well.
Chris is full of praise for the care and attention he received from the renal teams who have looked after him. He says that he’s been incredibly lucky to have a living donor willing and able to donate a kidney to him when so many are on the deceased donor waiting list. He says:
“What Liz did was incredibly generous and a selfless act to put herself through a major operation for me.” He describes what Liz has done as “amazing”.
In typical tongue-in-cheek fashion, she retorts:
“Amazing makes me sound like a circus act. It just saved me buying him a Christmas present!”
Chris and Liz are now urging people to consider signing up for the Organ Donation Register and they are welcoming a change in the law regarding organ donations.
At the moment, the law says that you must consent by “opting in” to donate an organ. The Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill, which is waiting for Royal Assent after being passed by Parliament, will assume there is consent to donate unless there is a known objection directly from the person concerned or through their family or next of kin. Chris says:
“The new ‘opt out’ will be fantastic news. It is not for us to preach as to whether an individual should be prepared to give organs or not. That has to be a personal decision. But the pendulum has swung with the change in presumption and the new opt out.”
However, Chris says it is vital that people still let their families know exactly what their wishes are.
Wales adopted the new law three years ago but are only now seeing an increase in donations because families are still asked for consent and it has taken some time for the message to spread that the wishes of their loved ones must be made clear for them to have an effect.
“People must make sure their wishes are known to their families or next of kin,” says Chris.
Torbay MP Kevin Foster, who supported the new Bill in the Commons and sat on the Bill committee, agreed:
“The best thing to do is tell your nearest and dearest exactly what your wishes are.”
Meanwhile, staff at Wollen Michelmore are being asked by Liz to stride out for charity and take part in a sponsored walk on 14th March which is World Kidney Day. The day is all about raising awareness of kidney disease and trying to avoid it.
The two-mile walk will take place during lunch time along specified routes at Wollen Michelmore’s offices in Torquay, Exeter, Barnstaple, Dartmouth and Newton Abbot with staff donating a minimum of £2 to Kidney Research UK.
Wollen Michelmore partner Chris Linton has also set up a Just Giving page so donations can be made online.
The Harts gave staff regular updates on how they and ‘Sidney the Kidney’ were doing during their recovery. To donate to the Just Giving page, click here.