Finding suitable donor kidneys was an answer to prayer for two Port Elizabeth kidney transplant patients, but they only had a few hours to get to Cape Town… 

One evening in March, two Port Elizabeth patients awaiting life-saving kidney transplant both received the news that suitable donor kidneys were available. However, they had to be in Cape Town early the following morning to undergo transplant surgery, as donor’s kidneys have to be transplanted within a certain time after becoming available, and it was too late to catch the last flight.

Waiting for a donor since 2013

“My niece, Cally Williams, has been reliant on dialysis for many years after suffering kidney failure. She has been on the waiting list for a donor’s kidney since 2013, and when that telephone call finally came we were overcome with emotion. For our family, this was nothing short of a miracle,” explains Mercia Heilbron, who is also Cally’s primary caregiver.

“After we received the news, we were desperately trying to find a way to get Cally to Cape Town in time or else Cally’s chance to receive this life-saving transplant would be lost.”

It was welcome news too for the staff at the National Renal Care (NRC) unit based at Netcare Cuyler Hospital in Uitenhage that Cally, one of the patients who had been dialysing at their unit, would finally receive the kidney transplant she needed. The other patient to receive a donor kidney, who has chosen to remain anonymous, had been undergoing renal dialysis at a state hospital.

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Sr Salome Siebritz, who is one of the NRC nurses providing acute dialysis to patients in Port Elizabeth and surrounding areas, has known 25-year-old Cally for some five years. Although Sr Siebritz had never met the state patient before, she was anxious to find out how both patients would find their way to Cape Town at such short notice.

“I was at home on the evening when my colleagues phoned to give me the news, and we discussed the logistics of how the two patients would reach Cape Town in time to undergo transplant surgery,” Sr Siebritz recalls.

The last flight for the day from Port Elizabeth to Cape Town was due to take off a mere 30 minutes after the patients were contacted, which ruled out air travel as a transport option.

I would drive her to Cape Town myself

“There was not a moment to lose, and I immediately phoned Cally to make travelling arrangements as I was concerned that she would miss this opportunity, and had decided that I would drive her to Cape Town myself,” Sr Siebritz relates.

Sr Siebritz also contacted the other patient who needed to get to Cape Town and her offer to drive her too was gratefully accepted.

“I called the NRC unit to request petty cash for the petrol money we would need for the 800km drive, and the staff all expressed their desire to contribute towards the costs of the journey. They spontaneously started a collection, and everyone from the doctors to the cleaning staff, as well as a number of patients were eager to make donations to help our two kidney recipients reach Cape Town in time.”

Sr Siebritz collected Cally, her aunt, Mercia, and the other patient, and at around 9pm they set off on the long drive to Cape Town, with Mercia and Sr Siebritz sharing the driving between them. As they approached Cape Town, Sr Siebritz phoned Netcare’s transplant coordinator, Alexia Michaelides, who provided directions to Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital.

Lost in Cape Town

“We were totally lost driving into Cape Town, and I was so grateful to Alexia because she guided us right to the hospital. We arrived with only half an hour to spare before the scheduled surgery. Alexia also arranged that a nurse from the hospital would to be ready to drive the other patient to the nearby Groote Schuur Hospital as soon as we arrived. It was a huge relief to realise that we had made it in time after our drive through the night.”

Michaelides adds: “It was critical for both patients that they reached the hospitals within the strict timeframe for the transplants to be viable. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Sr Siebritz and everyone who donated funds towards their travel, they were able to reach the hospital in time. I am also from Port Elizabeth originally, and there really is a strong community spirit among people from this part of the world.”

The money raised to cover the transport costs far exceeded expectations and was even enough for Cally to fly home when she had recuperated sufficiently to be discharged from Netcare Christiaan Barnard Memorial Hospital. Transport for the state patient was also arranged.

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Our most profound thanks go to the donor

Mercia adds that she and her family are very grateful for the care and assistance from all concerned, particularly Sr Siebritz and most importantly, the organ donor and the donor’s family.

“As a family, our most profound thanks goes to the donor, who during their lifetime made the decision to offer others a chance at life through registering as an organ donor. Although we do not know the donor’s name, we will forever give our thanks for the donor and the donor’s family, who at the most painful time had the generosity of spirit to honour their loved one’s wish for organs to be donated so that other people could live,” Mercia adds.

Mercia herself is registered as an organ donor with the Organ Donor Foundation, and encourages others to consider doing the same.

Chief executive officer of NRC, Robert Souter, commended Sr Siebritz and her colleagues for going the extra mile to assist their two patients.

“Our staff are always committed to ensuring the well-being of our patients, and many form a special bond with the patients they assist with dialysis over the years. When a kidney becomes available and is a match for one of our patients, we recognise the importance of the opportunity for them – it is no exaggeration to say that it can make the difference between life and death,” he concludes.

To register as an organ donor or for more information contact the Organ Donor Foundation on their toll free number, 0800 22 66 11, or visit www.odf.org.za.

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