Best mates are bound together by a lifesaving gift
JUDI Barrkman and Kerryn Rowcliffe have weathered many personal challenges during their 35 years as best mates.
Relationships have come and gone, children have been born, careers have waxed and waned, breast cancer has been survived and organs have been swapped since they met each other in Year Eight.
Just over a year ago, 49-year-old Kerryn gave Judi one of her kidneys after the ravages of an inherited disease began to take its toll on her 48-year-old friend's body.
"She's a been a great friend throughout our lives," Kerryn said of Judi.
"She's really gentle and kind - I really love that about her."
Kerryn said she had no qualms about offering her kidney to Judi when she found out she would need a transplant.
"I would never have been able to live with myself if I knew I could help her but I didn't," Kerryn said.
"It wasn't a difficult decision - I just went 'If they're a match, they're a match'.
"I wanted to do it because I just didn't want to see her suffer."
Kerryn's offer capped off a tumultuous few years for Judi.
The Sunshine Coast businesswoman was diagnosed with polycystic kidneys at 21.
The disease causes cysts to grow on the kidneys and eventually they destroy the organ's functions and the patient goes into kidney failure.
There is no treatment other than dialysis and a transplant.
The diagnosis did not surprise Judi, whose mother had the disease and needed a transplant at 65.
"The disease wasn't affecting me greatly and the doctors thought I'd have a transplant around the age of my mother," Judi said.
At 44 years old, and with her kidney functioning at 44 per cent, Judi received a totally unexpected and shocking diagnosis.
"I was told I had breast cancer," she said.
Judi's breasts were removed in 2013 and over the following three years she had multiple operations including a breast reconstruction.
Her long-term relationship ended and her kidneys "just crashed" from the impact of the surgeries and the cancer treatments.
"Within a year my kidney function dropped to 10 per cent and that's when it was decided I needed a transplant," she said.
In Australia, organ donation can be done via live donors or deceased donors.
Deceased donor transplants rely on the family of potential donors approving the surgery after their loved one is declared brain dead but their body remains on life support.
Organs can also be retrieved from patients with terminal heart or lung failure, or those who have had a very severe spinal injury meaning they cannot breathe unassisted.
One deceased donor may help improve the lives of 10 people. Surgeons can transplant hearts, lungs, liver, kidneys and corneas. Tissue can be used for a range of medical purposes.
Live donors allow a kidney or a lobe of their liver to be transplanted into another person. They go through a series of rigorous health and psychological tests before the surgery takes place.
In Judi's case, a live donor was closer to home than she could have possibly imagined.
"My best friend put her hand up to be tested and she matched, which was amazing," Judi said.
Judi and Kerryn underwent surgery in October last year.
"It was a really risky because normally they won't do a transplant if you have had any type of cancer because the transplant medications can give you a high risk of getting cancer," Judi said.
"Luckily they agreed because my cancer had been about three years previous."
Judi said Kerryn's decision to donate a kidney was not surprising because she had always been a "supportive and calming influence" in her life.
"Kerryn is someone I can talk to hours on end about a problem," Judi said.
"We spend time together and talk and talk about everything - we just love each other and that comes out in everything we do."
Kerryn had to endure about 12 months of blood, physical and mental tests before the doctors gave her the go-ahead to have the surgery.
'There are a lot of issues surrounding giving someone your kidney - it could fail, the body might reject the organ, you might give them the kidney then not like the way they live their life," Judi said.
"It's a really stressful process."
Kerryn said she was happy to go through the testing for her friend.
"The process was pretty good and at the end of the 12 months of tests I walked away knowing there was nothing wrong with my health because I had every test under the sun," she said.
The kidney removal operation took about four hours and Kerryn was up and about the following day.
"The recovery process was pretty smooth sailing," she said.
"I don't feel any different, I don't have any limitations on what I do because I only have one kidney.
"It's amazing really."
Both Judi and Kerryn would like to see all Australians sign up to the Organ Donor Registry and to talk to their families about their choice.
"I think if you can help somebody else, you should," Kerryn said.
"Seeing Judi on the road to recovery and looking great reinforces that."
Judi said her experience as a transplant patient showed her how vital organ donation was and she was willing to give any undamaged organs and tissues if she had the chance.
"I spent so much time with people at the transplant ward - I saw their lives changed," she said.
"It really is a gift of life - there's just no other way of looking at it.
"It may not cure them but a donation like this can mean getting someone off a machine.
"It really confuses me that so many people don't sign up."
We are leading the nation when it comes to saving lives
WITH more than one-third Gympie residents signed up to donate their organs, our region is leading the way on the gift that saves lives.
NewsRegional analysis of Australian Organ Donor Registry data shows there are 17,610 locals listed on the Australian Organ Donor Registry.
This equates to 35 per cent of the Gympie population and it is two percentage points ahead of the national rate of 33 per cent.
About 1400 Australians are on the transplant waiting list.
Australia has one of the lowest organ donation rates in the world despite major regional and metropolitan centres having dedicated deceased organ donation professionals.
Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service oversees the process in our region.
If a resident is a suitable organ donor, and if their family agrees, a team of specialist surgeons will usually fly in to retrieve their organs.
This is done while the person's body is still on life support.
The organs are then delivered to major transplant hospitals in Brisbane, NSW or Victoria that have matching recipients awaiting transplants.
A 2015 La Trobe University study found hospitals with high numbers of "family donation conversation-trained professionals" had significantly better donation consent rates than those without FDC experts.
"This is how the system is meant to operate but this doesn't always happen," ShareLife chairman Brian Myerson told NewsRegional.
"Not all requests to deceased donor families are done by donor specialists in Australia."
Someone who is trained in the process of requesting an organ donation but is not the doctor treating the dying patient gets about 75 per cent of families agreeing to allow the donation, Mr Myerson said.
"That's about as good as you can get."
He said a practitioner not trained in the donor conversation process would get 45 per cent per cent of families agreeing to allow the donation.
Professor Jonathan Fawcett is one of Australia's leading transplant surgeons and has saved hundreds of people in his career.
He said Australia's organ donation strategy was working very well.
"Public awareness is probably the single most important thing," the Princess Alexandra Hospital liver transplant specialist said.
"People have to be aware that transplantation is out there and that it is hugely beneficial.
"Although it is a terrible decision to have to make when a loved one is dying, it is often one of the most rewarding things bereaved families do."
Donate Life clinical education co-ordinator Francesca Rourke said our region had professionals who were highly trained and "extremely dedicated" to supporting families through the organ donation process.
Ms Rourke said local co-coordinators often juggled the role with their normal nursing duties, provided public education and often drove for hours to help hospitals in other districts when a potential organ candidate arrived in the intensive care unit.
"The regional co-ordinators are phenomenal with what they do and what they can do," Ms Rourke said.
"They are invaluable, they are highly trained and specialised in being able to provide the same support that is offered in capital cities."
Are you game enough for the Transplant Games?
THE Australian Transplant Games brings together athletes with the heart to inspire change.
The 2018 Games will be held on the Gold Coast from September 30 to October 6 with registrations closing on August 28.
There are more than 20 competitions listed and they include physical sports such as athletics, tennis, swimming, football, cycling, volleyball, table tennis and more sedate activities including lawn bowls, backgammon, chess, croquet and Scrabble.
Some participants will have benefitted from live donation of kidneys or livers and others will have received organs from deceased donors.
Friends and families of organ recipients and the loved ones of donors will be among the spectators.
"The Games celebrate people who have been at death's door, they have contemplated their own mortality and someone has donated their organs to give these people another chance at life," Transplant Australia boss Chris Thomas said.
"Part of the recipient's journey is focusing on their own health and rehabilitation.
"The Transplant Games is a key part of that because it gives them a goal to be as fit as possible."
Mr Thomas said the Games also inspired Aussies to join the Australian Organ Donor Registry and to talk to their family about their end of life wishes.
"The Games cast a spotlight on the success of Australia's organ and tissue donation systems and they encourage more Australians to look favourably on the concept of organ donation," he said.
"If we want to change people who have never considered doing this, we need a tangible reason for people to change.
"The tangible reason is the lives of people who have been saved through transplants and organ donation." -NewsRegional
To become an organ donor visit register.donatelife.gov.au
To take part in the Australian Transplant Games or go along to watch visit australiantransplantgames.com