Published on: 22 January 2024
Sue Westhead is a busy 75-year-old, enjoying her retirement after a packed career.
Here, the former PA from Houghton-le-Spring tells her story of how her mother’s donation of one of her kidneys broke ground in the UK and gave her 50-plus years of a better life.
Click here to read more about how Sue and Robert, another of our patients, have been recognised after they reached the 50-year anniversary of their transplant.
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.
I was 25 when my late mam, Ann, gifted me one of her kidneys. That means it’s now 108-years-old.
The story of my transplant started when I was around 12 or 13.
I grew up the youngest of three children with a brother, Ivan, and sister, Chris. Unfortunately my sister sadly passed away in 2017. She lived in Melbourne, Australia, and is survived by two children and three grandchildren.
My maiden name was Metcalfe, but at the time of my transplant, I was Susan Dunning and I went on to become Sue Westhead, which is how people will know me now.
My working life took me up to the age of 68. My past post was as PA to the CEO of a Christian Charity called The Nazareth Trust https://www.nazarethtrust.org/, where I worked for eight years.
It is a Scottish charity and owns a district general hospital in Nazareth, Israel. I retired because the CEO post was being relocated from Hetton-le-Hole to Nazareth, but I was lucky enough to make a few trips to Israel for Board meetings and also for the 150th anniversary of the hospital in 2011.
For 38 years, I worked for Durham County Council, more latterly as PA to the Deputy Chief Executive until I took early retirement in 2003. For the next 4 years, I worked for Earls House Hospital until I joined the Nazareth Trust.
Sue Westhead pictured on her wedding day when she was 20-years-old.
The transplant and the journey to our operation
My mother, Ann, gave me her kidney when she was 57-years-old in July 1973. My mother, father and sister in Australia were all tissue typed for compatibility but it was found that my mother was the best match, being a 3:4.
The first indication of any kidney problems was when I was about 12 or 13 when I was passing blood in my urine. I was checked out but found to be okay.
However during my teens I suffered urinary tract and kidney infections, together with fainting, and very bad headaches that made me sick.
I later found out was due to high blood pressure caused by glomerulonephritis. This is damage to the tiny filters inside the kidneys and it is often caused by your immune system attacking healthy body tissue.
Unfortunately, by the time this was discovered the high blood pressure had damaged my kidneys beyond repair and I was effectively living on a tenth of my normal kidney function by the time I was 20.
Sue's mam Ann.
By this time I was really poorly and was admitted to Newcastle General Hospital as an emergency. It was touch and go as to whether I lived or died - I was seriously ill and visiting was at any time.
After being dialysed by peritoneal dialysis, I recovered after a couple of weeks, though I was still very weak. Because of the amount of damage done to my kidneys, I was put on a very strict diet that isn’t used today as people starved to death on it.
It was called the Giovanetti Diet and I was on it for five years. You were allowed no salt, nothing with salt in it such as ketchup, bread, any tinned vegetables, nor were you allowed much protein. One egg a day was the only protein, to be replaced by one ounce of meat once a week.
Bread was ordered from the chemist and butter was a horrible gloop of salt free fat called Tomor that had to be specially ordered. Fortunately for me, I cheated and I lived!
My doctor at the time, Dr Uldall, put me on some experimental medicine called Cyclophospamide and it actually killed the kidney disease, but my kidneys were too badly damaged to survive. I know this drug is now widely used as a chemotherapy drug so I’m glad I could be of some help in testing it.
When I was 25 my kidneys gave up the ghost and I was put on dialysis at Newcastle General, which in those days was nothing like modern day hospitals.
Cold, tiled Victorian passageways and kidney dialysis machines that looked like large washing machines. Nothing like the warm, pleasant surroundings used today.
And the machines are so small, they look like computers! However, the only salvation was the bacon sandwiches we were allowed when we were on dialysis - manna from heaven - salt and protein all in one go!
It was at this stage that they tissue typed my family and found my mother to be a very good match. We were told that the transplant would go ahead in three weeks’ time, subject to my mother passing all the rigorous tests and being fit enough to withstand the operation.
She sailed through them and the operation went ahead as planned at the Royal Victoria Hospital, with Mr Ross Taylor operating on my mother and Professor Swinney, who was a distant relative of my mother, operating on me.
While I was still on the ward recovering, I offered to send out donor cards as the Northern Echo and The Chronicle had a donor card drive.
I noticed in one of the papers that there was an account of a live kidney swap and thought it sounded very much like our operation, though they had changed some of the details to protect identities.
I was told it was indeed our operation and that it was the first time a British journalist had been allowed in a live transplant operation.
Within two weeks of the operation, I was transformed from the shadow of the person I had been. I was no longer yellow, but pink.
I had energy instead of being exhausted all the time, and I just couldn’t wait to get into Fenwick!
Sue pictured after her transplant.
It took my mother longer to recover as she was older and had had a major organ removed so she was kept in the hospital a little longer than me.
However, she followed me home a few days later and my sister had come over from Australia so that helped cheer everybody up.
Sharing my story
The BBC did an article on me when my kidney was 100-years-old as the wife of Dr Ian Moore, my previous consultant, worked for Radio Newcastle and Dr Moore asked if he could pass on the information about the age of my kidney. It went viral and ended up in most newspapers in the UK, TV, radio and other papers all over the world.
Dr Moore’s wife said at the time she had done some deep digging and that she couldn’t find an older, successfully transplanted kidney anywhere in the world.
I also opened The Bridges Walk for Kidney Research UK in 2016.
Sue Westhead, pictured at a fundraiser for Kidney Research UK.
When I had my transplant, I thought I would be extremely lucky if I got five years as a lot of people were dying around me in those days. However, that was thankfully not to be…I got 50, thanks to our wonderful NHS, my mother and her genes.
I would like to stress what amazing treatment I have had from the NHS. It takes a lot of flack, but I certainly wouldn’t be here today without it.
For anyone who is in the position I was in 50 years ago - renal failure - don’t think it’s the end of the world. If they could give me 50 years, who’s to say they can’t give you 50 years, especially the way medicine is progressing today.
And to your loved ones 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.
Thank you NHS
There are one or two people in particular I would like to thank. Firstly, Dr Robert Wilkinson, later to become Professor Wilkinson, who looked after me so well for over 30 years. I cannot thank him enough.
Dr Ian Moore, and more latterly, Dr Rachel Davison, who, together with her team, is always there for me when I need her. They are just simply the best.
To each and every one of you, a massive THANK YOU!
If I’d known in 1973 that I would still be here in 2024 - I just wouldn’t have believed it. After I got past the milestone of five years, I put my health issues to the back of my mind and have led a totally normal life.
Dr Rachel Davison, patient Sue Westhead, Professor Robert Wilkinson and Dr Sid Ahmed.
Finally, 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.