Keith Smith has donated one of his kidneys to give a new quality of life to son Ronan - in a ‘round-robin’ medical miracle that involved simultaneous transplants in Belfast, Cambridge and London.
Keith’s kidney wasn’t donated to his son, however: the Portadown father-of-three’s vital organ enhanced the life of the Cambridge patient in the multiple surgery. The donor there provided a kidney for the Londoner, and the London donor’s kidney was rushed to Belfast for Ronan’s transplant.
It was a precisely-planned scheme, with chartered planes flying the kidneys to the various locations and the operations timed to the minute. The kidney from the unknown London donor was transplanted into Ronan only a few hours after it had been retrieved via keyhole surgery, the same technique used to harvest Keith’s kidney in Belfast.
Ronan (29), of Charlestown Road, was born with one kidney “which didn’t work very well”. His latest transplant means he now has four kidneys – three that don’t function after two earlier transplants and the fourth from “donor unknown”.
His family (parents Keith and Siobhan and brothers Shaun and Callum) have been a tremendous support, with dad (53), an HR professional, making no great deal of his sacrifice - “You do your best by your family. We all have a spare kidney, and ‘live’ transplants are becoming more common.”
Ronan had to go on home-based dialysis for over three years from the age of five. His first transplant was at eight, but it failed after three years. He endured a further year on haemodialysis, travelling to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children three times a week for four-hour sessions.
Transplant number two was in February 1999. It lasted until 2013, another period of dialysis followed for 13 months before he received his third transplant in January 2015. Ronan was one of Northern Ireland’s first nocturnal dialysis patients - he dialysed every other night for eight hours while he waited for a call to confirm a match had been found to enable a new transplant.
But his medical history hasn’t held him back. He has a degree in Human Resources Management from UUJ, played five-a-side football, badminton and golf, as well as participating and winning several medals at Transplant Games in various parts of Britain. He works as a technician co-ordinator at Belfast Metropolitan College and plans to marry his fiancée Ciara in September next year.
Dad, Keith, is passionate on the subject of organ donation. He believes that the opt-out system should be made law as soon as possible, “with relatives having no say after the death of a loved one - after all, they can’t change the contents of a will”. He added that the issue was becoming too much of a political football in the NI Assembly. “The issue should get all-party approval.”
He is a trustee of the NI Children’s Kidney Fund and was thrilled over the “kidney pool” system which enabled the three-way swap. He marvelled at an 11-way swap in America.
“I wasn’t a match for Ronan,” Keith shared. “We don’t know the identity of the recipient of my kidney, nor who our donor was. That’s all strictly confidential.” Keith’s humour shines through. He’s a GAA referee, and laughed, “This ref has made the right decision. That doesn’t often happen!”