Jackie Smith doesn’t hesitate when asked what she is looking forward to most after lockdown.
“Taking my little girl on her first holiday,” she says with a smile.
Jackie defied the odds – and doctors’ fears for her safety – to give birth to Poppy while waiting for a kidney transplant four years ago.
But family holidays were impossible as Jackie had to spend five days a week hooked up to a dialysis machine to clean her blood and keep her alive.
In January, just as the country was going back into lockdown, she got the call she had hoped for since her kidneys began failing seven years earlier.
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A suitable organ had been found after the new opt-out donor register launched a year ago as a result of the Mirror’s Law for Life campaign.
As we revealed on Thursday, new figures show that since the law changed almost 300 people have donated their organs having not previously specified any wishes.
Jackie, 39, from Castle Donington, Derbyshire, said: “It has been life-changing. I can’t wait to take Poppy to the seaside, so she can feel the sand between her toes and paddle in the sea.
“Before my transplant, we couldn’t go on holiday because my dialysis machine was too big and heavy to take with us. It even affected Christmas.
“We often missed out on things because I had to do dialysis. It was hard, not knowing how long I would have to wait for a transplant and how much Poppy would miss in that time.”
In summer 2016 Jackie was overjoyed to find out she was pregnant, two years after being diagnosed with IgA
nephropathy, a harmful build-up of antibodies which damaged her kidneys.
At that time her illness was controlled with tablets, although she would eventually need dialysis and a transplant.
But she had no idea it could stop her having children until she told doctors.
Jackie said: “They were surprised I was able to get pregnant and because of the risk to me and my baby, the medical advice was to terminate, then wait until I’d had a transplant before trying again.
“I was devastated. I knew this could be my only chance to be a mum and it might be taken away. I hadn’t even started dialysis, it could be years before I had a transplant.”
Health and safety adviser Jackie used her training to start researching the risks and the likely outcomes of pregnancy for patients suffering kidney failure to help her make a “logical decision”.
Jackie said: “At that point I realised how rare this was, because there was no information for people like me, just a handful of articles in medical journals that were full of jargon I didn’t understand.
“But deep down I’d already made up my mind. If this was my only chance to be a mum, I wasn’t giving up. I wanted to give my baby a chance.”
Jackie had weekly check-ups and started dialysis three months into the pregnancy as her kidney function plunged to just 14%.
To minimise the amount of time she spent in hospital, she decided to have dialysis at home. It meant being hooked up to the machine for six hours at a time, five nights a week.
Jackie said: “It was exhausting. Some nights I struggled for an hour just to get the needles in and the sound of the machine kept me awake. I sat and cried while everyone else was asleep.”
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Despite the doctors’ concerns and an apparent lack of amniotic fluid during one antenatal scan, the pregnancy went well and Poppy was delivered by caesarean section in January 2017. Jackie’s renal team, who became like “extended family” during the pregnancy, even visited her and Poppy on the maternity unit.
Jackie said: “Holding Poppy for the first time was the best feeling ever. All those sleepless nights, all the trauma trying to put the needles in, it was all worthwhile, because I’d done it for her.
“It was so lovely that my renal team all came in on a Sunday to see me and meet Poppy – they played such an important part in making sure she arrived safely.”
After the birth Jackie asked to be placed on the transplant waiting list, hoping that would improve her health so she could be the best mum possible to Poppy.
But she had to wait 18 months before joining the list, as doctors would not approve such major surgery while she was caring for a newborn baby. In the meantime Jackie juggled dialysis with breastfeeding, work, and caring for Poppy. That became even more challenging after she split from Poppy’s dad during lockdown last year.
She was even temporarily taken off the waiting list after a virus caused her heart function to drop.
Jackie finally received the call telling her a matching kidney had been found in January and her new kidney was implanted in her groin without removing either of her existing organs. She spent five days recovering alone at Nottingham City Hospital as no visitors were allowed.
Jackie said: “It was such a shock to get the call, I didn’t think it would happen in the middle of the pandemic because I knew a lot of units had been forced to suspend transplants. The worst thing was not being able to see Poppy, we had never been apart for that long. When I got home she wouldn’t let me go anywhere without holding my hand to make sure I was OK.”
Jackie’s kidney function has increased since her transplant and is now 36%. She has returned her dialysis machine – a milestone moment – and turned her “dialysis room” into a home office.
Jackie said: “I feel so lucky to be able to live a normal life now. For the first time since Poppy was born, we don’t have to organise our lives around my dialysis machine.
“Once we’ve been on holiday, I plan to write to my donor’s family and tell them what a difference my transplant has made, not just for me, but for Poppy and the rest of my family.
“I want them to know what a wonderful thing they have done. I hope that will bring them some comfort.”
- For more information about the opt-out donor register and how to discuss your wishes with your family, visit: organdonation.nhs.uk
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