Transplant duo crosses triathlon line

July 19th, 2018 7:05 AM

By Jackie Keogh

Friends Fiona O'Donnell and Gráinne O'Keeffe, who took part in the Brosnan's Centra Fastnet Triathlon in Schull last month, share a unique bond.

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Two friends – who shared the unusual experience of a live kidney transplant – recently completed their first triathlon together.


TWO friends – who shared the unusual experience of a live kidney transplant – recently completed their first triathlon together.

Skibbereen native, Grainne O’Keeffe last September donated one of her kidneys to Fiona O’Donnell, who is originally from Ballincollig but moved to Clonakilty in 2006 because all of her family had, in one way or another, relocated west.

It was in 2009 that Fiona (37) was diagnosed with a kidney disease that even she finds hard to pronounce. The diagnosis came when she was pregnant with her third child.

‘I was managing it pretty well until December 2014, when I caught a flu and became progressively more unwell. My symptoms from the middle of 2015 were such that my kidneys began to deteriorate. 

‘At that point I went on a course of chemotherapy and steroids to see if they would dampen my immune system but that didn’t work.

‘As it progressed, I ended up on dialysis towards the end of 2016. That was the wake-up for me: I realised I needed a transplant. 

‘When I went on the transplant list I told my friends and all of them pipped-up and said: “Sure we’ll give you a kidney.”

‘They said they would put themselves forward – five or six of them – it was amazing. But, for one reason or another, people were excluded either because they were on medication, or because they were not a genetic match.’

It was in January 2017 that Gráinne was tested and she came back as a match. 

‘There is excitement,’ Fiona recalled her response on first hearing the news. ‘But there is also an element of holding back in case it doesn’t come to be because there are so many other stages where the potential donor can be ruled out.’

A series of other tests were carried out and they were all positive and they only got the final clearance just five days before the transplant took place on September 4th, 2017. ‘It was huge,’ Fiona said when trying to explain her sense of gratitude. ‘It is difficult to know what to feel until you know it is actually going ahead. Obviously, you are so grateful to those who even consider being a donor. 

‘It was so overwhelming that so many people wanted to help. But you shut things off in case you are disappointed. Grainne is the most selfless, generous, giving person I know. And that’s not just in a physically giving way, she does it with her time, advice, in every respect. She is such an open and pragmatic person. And great fun.’

On Saturday, June 9th last, both Fiona, who is a sports performance nutritionist, and Grainne, who works for Spearline Risk and Compliance in Skibbereen, took part in the Schull Triathlon.

‘I was nervous because it was my first competitive triathlon post-transplant,’ said Fiona. ‘I had done a couple of marathons in training but it is different on the day with the crowds. But having Grainne running as a friend, and a clubmate, was very special.

‘When you are crossing the finish line, the people there to cheer you on are your teammates. Grainne was there and we embraced. It was very emotional. There was a sense of elation to have done it, to renew that self-confidence, and to do it with Grainne brought everything full circle.

‘We met through triathlon training with our club in Clonakilty. And everyone knows that we are the giddy ones. In that respect, we are the worst pairing. But on this occasion, we were running together with four kidneys: me with three and Grainne with one.’

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