A 24-year-old student says he can never repay his cousin after he donated half his liver to him for a transplant.
Aaron Smyth from Omagh became the first adult in Northern Ireland to receive a liver transplant from a living donor after his cousin Robert Smyth came to the rescue.
Aaron faced a two-and-a-half year wait for an organ and feared he could become one of the 20% of patients who die while on the donor list.
His parents were ruled out of being living donors because they were past the age limit of 50, and his sister Alexandra was tested for compatibility but had the wrong blood type.
However, cousin Robert, originally from Drumquin but now living in Bedfordshire, secretly had himself tested for compatibility and then stepped forward to make the offer that changed Aaron’s life.
Now Aaron is recovering well and hopes to return to study mechanical engineering at Queen’s University in Belfast this September.
The first signs of illness came at 14 when Aaron was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a condition that was treated with steroids. However, blood tests showed that something was amiss with his liver function.
Then at 19 he came down with his first liver infection – and that is when he was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare and incurable disease that causes the bile ducts to become blocked.
“The disease makes your bile ducts close up and you get infections. It scars up your liver and you lose liver function. My liver function was down to 5%,” Aaron explained.
“But because the liver is in charge of so many things, you have so many side-effects. My body wouldn’t let me go to sleep because I had no stored energy. Your liver is not cleaning your blood so you feel itchy all the time – I would have been quite yellow. The itchiness was like having chickenpox all the time for three or four years.”
Aaron was put on the liver donor list in November 2015, but was warned it could be a lengthy wait.
“They told me it would be two-and-a-half years on the waiting list. It was a horrible time because it was so long in the future and I was feeling so bad at that stage,” he said.
Aaron went to King’s College Hospital in London to be briefed on what to expect and to be ready to go for the operation at any time.
“They told me that 20% of the people on the list don’t make it to transplant – they just die on the list,” he said.
“But while I was there they mentioned living organ donation, which we hadn’t realised was a thing.
“Mum and Dad were automatically ruled out because they were too old, and my sister got tested but she was the wrong blood group, so I thought that was the end of it.
“But a couple of months later Robert rang to say he had heard about it through my family and had gone ahead to get checked out and he was a match.
“I was probably the last person to know! He made the decision and talked it through with his family and once he made the decision, he was unwavering with it. It was such a big gift.”
The transplant was carried out in October at King’s College Hospital. Despite undergoing a 14-hour transplant operation, Aaron was up and walking within a week.
“Your liver goes back to its full size within about four weeks and regains full function within six weeks,” he said.
“I never expected it, and I could never repay Robert. It’s just a big gift and it really massively helped me.
“I was in a bad state at the time and it saved me so much suffering – it saved my life.”
Robert says it was only when he heard that Aaron’s sister was undergoing tests that he realised a living donor was an option.
“When that happened, I realised I could be a potential donor,” he said.
“I’ve known him for a long time and for the last 10 years he’s been ill, so if I could do anything for him, I was willing to try.”
Robert suffered some complications due to nerve damage, but is hoping to fully recover in time.
“It went well, especially when you see Aaron and he’s full of energy. He’s going for walks and climbing mountains. He’s enjoying his life – he missed the last five years of it – and that does give me heart.”
Aaron is trying to raise money for three groups that supported him – organ donor awareness charity Live Life Give Life, the transplant team at King’s College Hospital, and the Royal Victoria Hospital Liver Support Group.
And he is urging people to consider organ donation.
“One organ donor can change nine people’s lives. It’s such a big gift if someone you love has passed away,” he said.
More information about the campaign is available at Aaron’s GoFundMe page www.gofundme/aaron-smyth.