Former assembly member Jo-Anne Dobson talks about her health after donating a kidney to her son

Gail Bell asks experts and people in the public eye what keeps them going. This week: Jo-Anne Dobson, former Ulster Unionist MLA and currently Northern Ireland ambassador for Kidney Care UK. The Waringstown woman recently donated one of her kidneys to her son, Mark

UUP assembly member Jo-anne Dobson, Northern Ireland ambassador for Kidney Care UK Picture: Mal McCann
Gail Bell

1. Up and at it – what is your morning routine?

Morning routine begins with having breakfast with my son Mark, as my husband is out and about very early as he always has lots to do on our family farm. As we have breakfast, Mark and I get up to speed with the latest news and also check our twitter and social media accounts – then his transplant drugs routine begins. As a transplant recipient, Mark has quite a strict drugs regime which I need to set out and help him take.

2. What might you eat in a typical working day for...

Breakfast? Breakfast is always muesli with a cup of Earl Grey tea.

Lunch? Lunch is more rushed as I am out and about in my role as Kidney Care UK ambassador, or else I'm busy with my consultancy business, but I like to grab a quick sandwich or salad.

Evening meal? Dinner varies and is our family time when we all put aside the day we have had and enjoy quality time together.

3. Is nutrition important to you?

Being a partner in our family Aberdeen Angus beef farm, I always believe in having the fridge stocked with fresh local produce – it's healthier and doesn’t have to be more expensive if you know where to shop. I always try to eat well and healthily and have as little processed food as possible. Our diets became even more restricted when Mark was on dialysis, as he was severely restricted in what he could both eat and drink. At home, we changed our own diets which made for some seriously healthy dinners, but we all felt the benefits – especially when we were going through our transplant surgery.

4. Best meal ever?

Has to be at the Shard in London with my son Elliott who lives and works as a commodities trader in the city of London. It was a lovely experience to overlook the city and enjoy some fine dining and a lovely bottle of wine with my son.

5. Do you have a guilty pleasure?

I do have a sweet tooth and can’t resist a Costa treat, with caramel squares topping the 'sin' list.

6 Have you ever been on a diet? If so, how did it go?

At the moment, I am very conscious of my diet, post-surgery. Mark and I are still in our recovery period which really has limited the amount of exercise we can both take, but I did a slow-run/walk in the final leg of the Belfast City Marathon to raise awareness of kidney patients and raise funds for Kidney Care UK. The post-recovery diet has already begun and I’m determined to stick to it.

7. Do you take health supplements?

Daily, I take an evening primrose oil capsule and, occasionally, if I feel a sniffle coming on, I take an echinacea tablet.

8. How do you relax?

I love a good book and like nothing better than sitting out in the sun – at home or away – soaking in the atmosphere.

9. Teetotal or tipple?

Tipple – I do enjoy a good glass of Pino, Sauvignon Blanc or even a Hendrix and tonic, although I have recently discovered Edinburgh Rhubarb and Ginger which is amazing with Fever Tree ginger ale.

10. Stairs or lift?

As much as possible, the stairs.

11. Do you have a daily exercise regime?

I walk as much as I can, including across the fields of our farm in the evenings, and I do measure my step count on my phone.

12. Best tip for everyday fitness?

Don’t overdo it – keep a regular routine and stick to it as much as possible.

13. On a scale of one to 10, how fit do you think you are and how fit would you like to be?

I'll say I'm a seven, aspiring to be back to an 8. I had to go through a full assessment to make sure that I was fit and healthy enough to go through transplant surgery to donate a kidney to Mark and in the recovery period – which lasts 12 weeks – I have been less active, as both Mark and I are under doctor's orders to take as much rest as possible.

14. Have you tried, or would you try, alternative therapy?

I know many friends who have benefited greatly and although I’ve never tried it myself, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.

15. Were school sports happy times or do you have a memory you would rather forget?

PE was more of an observation sport for me and while I always enjoyed the annual cross-country running at Banbridge Academy, I wasn’t a natural sports person.

16. Did you ever have a health epiphany which made you change your lifestyle?

As a young mother, I knew little about kidney failure until we were told that at five weeks old, Mark had been diagnosed with renal reflux which, as it had gone undetected, had shut down his left kidney and left the right with just 19 per cent function. As a family, our entire lifestyle changed as we have lived and breathed organ donation and transplants ever since.

17. Best health/lifestyle advice you were ever given and would pass on to others?

I have very fond memories of my grandmother who passed when I was just two years old – she was only 41 and had ovarian cancer. My mum always instilled in my sister and I the importance of regular check-ups and this has stayed with us both throughout our lives.

18. Who inspires you or who would you try to emulate in terms of fitness/attitude to life?

It’s impossible to narrow this down to any one person, as there are so many amazing people whose personal crusades touch the lives of us all.

19. What time do you normally get to bed and do you get enough sleep?

Bedtime tends to be around midnight and I normally sleep well.

20. Would you say you have a healthy attitude towards your own mortality?

I take absolutely nothing for granted in life and live each day at a time. Mark has been through so much in his 25 years and, while post-transplant, will need to continue a regular tablet regime for the rest of his life. He remains my priority, as well as promoting our journey and the lifesaving and life-restoring power of organ donation.

:: In March, Jo-Anne donated a kidney to her son, Mark, who had been on dialysis for seven months after losing his previously transplanted kidney in August last year. She has campaigned for organ donation and was responsible for bringing forward Northern Ireland's first Opt-Out Organ Donation Bill to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

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