When Westpac employee Geraldine Wilson met her husband Neil, a former postie who now works in aged care, she knew they were a good match. But she couldn’t have guessed they were so compatible she would be able to give him her kidney.
Neil had told me not to get my hopes up.
He’d started looking for a kidney donor, but for a husband and wife the chances of compatibility are one in 1 million.
He’d told me early on – probably our third date, almost 12 years ago – that he had problems with his kidneys. You wouldn't have known it. It didn’t really affect him, except that he had to go for a check-up every six months.
Our first big adventure together was a motorbike trip around the States. Neil had invited me on one of our first dates. I'd always wanted to go to the US, but not necessarily on a bike! He convinced me it would be comfortable, so I agreed, and it was! It was great.
We travelled for nine weeks, camping most of the time. We’d thought, well, this is going to make or break us. We’ve been married ever since.
We knew he’d probably eventually have to go on dialysis, but always thought that would be way down the track.
But at the beginning of this year he started to go down-hill. He got really sick last Christmas Eve and called me and said: “I don't want to startle you, but I can't walk.” He was in emergency all night. The doctors thought it was vertigo at first, but we could tell he was getting sicker.
His first dialysis session was in March, and he was in three times a week. He needed that to keep him alive, basically. It was pretty draining. He had to go all the way from home at Heathcote to Bondi Junction, and was on the machine for four hours each time.
I knew the chance of my kidneys being compatible was close to zero, but I really wanted to do it for Neil. I had tests done and, while they were good, they were on the “low side” of good. I needed to lose some weight. I told myself I had to be strong, and I lost about 19 kilos. When I went back, the doctors said they were amazed at how high functioning my kidneys had become.
Even more amazing, we got the news we were a match. The transplant happened in September.
When it was getting closer, I did have a bit of anxiety one night when it dawned on me that we were really doing it. The thought that got me through was that Neil and I have so many plans for the future. If I retired without him, what was the point?
Neil was happy and excited that it was all happening, but he was worried about me.
It’s good to know he’s got my kidney. I know how much it’s changed his life, and how much he appreciates it. He’s looking a lot healthier now. They didn’t actually take out his old kidneys so we joke that he’s a bit greedy because he’s got three now!
If we hadn’t have been a match, he could still be waiting.
We met online, and by the third date, we pretty well knew we were going to get married.
We’d both come out of long term relationships, I was almost 40 and Geraldine 38. We weren't kids, and didn’t want to muck around. Our holiday to America basically sealed the deal.
What we’ve been through and accomplished together in the 12 years since is unbelievable.
About three dates in, I told her I had kidney disease, but she took it in her stride.
The kidney problem pans back to a bike accident I had when I was nearly 17.
I was on my Ls, young and dumb. I’d had my 250 (motorbike) for only a week, and slammed straight into the back of parked panel van. My forehead, nose, cheeks, jaw were all crushed – and I lost my right eye. Five broken ribs, couldn't feel from the waist down.
One of the doctors told me I was knocking on heaven’s door but everyone must have been out for lunch.
Because I was young, resilient, and had good friends and family around me, I was able to bounce back and get back to work after a few months.
What we didn’t know then was that during the facial reconstruction, a little bit of flesh in my right sinus had been pinched and nearly 11 years later, it festered, got infected and got into the brain fluid. I was eating pain killers for months, until I collapsed. The doctor said: “Your body, from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, is poisoned.” I had bacterial meningitis.
To get rid of it, I went on a very heavy dose of antibiotics, which worked, but it also buggered my kidneys. I’ve had check-ups ever since. Five years ago, the doctors told me to start looking for a donor.
I didn’t ask Geraldine. Out of the blue, she said she wanted to give me her kidney. I wondered: “How could you even think of doing that?” She’s the first to get queasy when she sees a needle, yet she was willing to do that. I don't know if there is anything more a wife or husband could do for their other half.
I’ve been through a lot of surgeries in my life, but the transplant scared me the most, knowing that my wife was going into surgery too. It wasn’t just about opening me up – it was about taking out one of my wife’s organs too.
The hardest part was not being able to see her for four days after I’d woken up. The first thing she said when we were finally together again was that she was feeling great. She’s such a trooper, truly unbelievable. It’s a big sacrifice. She’s got to live the rest of her life with only one kidney.
Life is getting back to normal. The kidney is working perfectly well. The doctors tell me it’s actually doing better in me than it was in Geraldine!
I'll be taking anti-rejection drugs for the rest of my life, but that’s nothing compared to having dialysis or worse.
It feels surreal to have a bit of Geraldine inside me. I’m constantly reminded that I have to look after it because I've got someone watching me!
It was a blessing in itself just meeting Geraldine. For her to do this for me, I still pinch myself.
To join the Australian organ donor register, visit Donate Life.