Published on: 18 January 2024
A double celebration has been held for two patients who are marking the ‘golden’ moment since their lives were saved when relatives stepped forward to donate a kidney.
Robert Hughes, from County Durham, underwent his operation on January 18, 1974, when his late brother John was found to be a match.
Today, Sunderland Royal Hospital welcomed the 75-year-old for his regular check-up, scheduled at his request so that it fell on the date of the anniversary.
After his appointment with Consultant Nephrologist James Andrews, South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust’s Renal Unit team hosted a celebration in recognition of the milestone day.
He was joined by Sue Westhead, also 75 and from Houghton-le-Spring, who has now enjoyed more than 50 years free of kidney disease.
This was after her late mother Ann Metcalfe donated her organ – which is now 108-years-old – in July 1973.
Patients Robert Hughes and Sue Westhead cut their celebration cake at a celebration which brought together Trust leaders, transplant experts and members of Sunderland Royal Hospital's Renal Team.
Sue also had her check-up today with Consultant Nephrologist Rachel Davison. As part of her role, Dr Davison specialises in supporting patients who are donating their kidney to another person in need of a transplant.
The reception saw Robert and Sue presented with a certificate and plaque, as well as gifts, with a cake cut to mark the day.
Dr Andrews said:
"Welcoming in Robert for his appointment on the very day he had his transplant 50 years on was an honour for our team.
"It’s a remarkable milestone and as a department we were grateful for the chance to acknowledge the treatment which has made a difference to his life and the gift his own brother gave.
"I hope both Robert, Sue and their families enjoyed their day of celebrations. It was our privilege to host a special event for them."
Robert grew up in South West London and had just gained his licence as a jump jockey when he became unwell, forcing him to give up his career.
Robert Hughes riding Pay Off at Fontwell Park after he passed his jockey's licence.Robert Hughes riding Pay Off at Fontwell Park after he passed his jockey's licence.
He began dialysis while his family underwent tests to find a potential donor.
Once John was found to be a match, they underwent their surgery at St Thomas’ Hospital in Central London, with both warned it was risky as transplants were still relatively new.
But it was a success and Robert went on to get married to Christine, who passed away 12 years ago in the same year as John. Robert and Christine became parents to Michelle, 46, and David, 45. Both his children were with him to mark his 50th anniversary day.
Robert Hughes, wife Christine and his brother John on the couple's wedding day.
Robert went on to find work as a bookmaker and casino croupier and has lived in the North East for the last 30 years.
He said of the day of his transplant:
"I remember in the corridor, I was going into one theatre and he was going into the other, I shook his hand and we had a bit of brotherly banter.
"After the transplant, I remember they gave me half a pint of Guinness to help get some iron in me and to see if it worked."
Both brothers experienced complications during their recovery, but their experience strengthened their bond.
"John saved my life. From after the transplant, he wasn’t just my brother, he was my best friend, I just couldn’t thank him enough.
"I felt unbelievable afterwards. In those early days we were still in hospital, I still had my fistula in my arm which had been used when I had dialysis. That was a reminder of how I’d had to use the machine and I’d had to watch what I’d eaten and follow a special diet.
"After my transplant, my life totally changed, I could live normally.
"John’s death was terribly sad. I’ve got some nice old photos of us together and our dad had bought us both a gold bracelet after our surgery, my brother’s said ‘For courage’ and mine said ‘For valour’.
"I still have my six-monthly checks at the hospital and every time I go through the doors I get a smile because they know they’ve seen me for so long."
Sue began to feel unwell when she was around 12 or 13 and was 25 when she needed to start dialysis.
Sue Westhead's mam Ann Metcalfe.
"When I had my transplant, I thought I would be extremely lucky if I got five years.
"I got 50 years, thanks to our wonderful NHS, my mother and her genes.
"I would like to stress what amazing treatment I have had from the NHS, I certainly wouldn’t be here today without it.
"I know my mother would have been totally amazed that her kidney gave me life for so long after her death. When I say I carry a little piece of her around with me always, I mean it.
"Thank you Mam."
"If your loved ones are thinking of donating, if the circumstances are right, do it.
"To all those people walking around thinking they’ll get round to signing up to a donor card some day, your kidneys are no use to you once you’ve passed away.
"Just think of the joy you would bring to a person and their family who is leading a miserable, tied down to dialysis life.
"They would be forever indebted."
She added her thanks to Professor Robert Wilkinson, who looked after her for more than 30 years, Dr Ian Moore, who also helped treat her, and latterly Dr Davison.
Dr Rachel Davison, patient Sue Westhead, Professor Robert Wilkinson and Dr Sid Ahmed.
Dr Davison said:
"Sue’s story, and that of her mother, is truly amazing. It shows what medicine can do and how transplants can give people a life and lifestyle they simply would not have been able to have.
"We have lots more ways to treat people now and many of our patients live well using dialysis offered in our units, but also in their own homes. But for some, a kidney transplant offers a chance of return to a virtually normal life, without dietary and fluid restrictions.
"Kidney transplants help people live longer and live better.
"Sue raises a really good point. Have those conversations with your loved ones about your wishes when you time comes in case you can save other people’s lives.
"There is also the chance you can be a match for another person and be able to donate one of your kidneys as a living donor.
"Take the time to look at how organ donation works. Life is the biggest gift you can give to someone else."
Robert Hughes and Sue Westhead cut their celebration cake.
More details about how to sign up or opt out of organ donation can be found via https://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/