Jordanstown golfer John (79) is going for gold at World Transplant Games
They say age is only a number and that couldn't be truer for 79-year-old kidney transplant recipient John McAleer. He tells Nikki McKeown his transplant story as he prepares to represent Ireland in the World Transplant Games
GOLFER and kidney transplant recipient John McAleer is on course for his debut at the World Transplant Games in Spain this week – at the tender age of 79.
The most senior member of the Transplant Team Ireland, Jordanstown resident John will be competing in the Golf singles and Golf Team event at this year's games, which start in Malaga on Sunday, his mission to bring home gold and at the same time raise awareness for the importance of organ donation.
Although this will be the retired Ulster University Lecturer's first World Games, he has a proven track record as a high-level athlete with the Irish Transplant Team, having competed in the European Transplant and Dialysis games in both Dublin and Zagreb as a dialysis athlete and then in Poland and Vantaa, Finland, as a transplant recipient. His medal haul from those outings amount to a gold, two silvers and two bronzes.
John is one of 29 athletes from all over Ireland who will fly out to represent their country and showcase the amazing success of organ donation on Saturday.
He was playing golf on his home course in Belfast three years ago when he received a call for a life-changing kidney transplant at the City Hospital. The call came 15 years after he was diagnosed with failing kidneys.
“It was my who GP picked up on it and told me that at some stage my kidney would fail. In 2008, the beginning of that year, I had to start dialysis."
In practice, dialysis entailed a demanding schedule of three four-hour sessions at Belfast City Hospital every week but John plays that down, thankful for the lease of life it gave him.
“Some people have a great deal more difficulty; and after about a year and half I was able to start doing the dialysis at home. They installed a machine and I got really good support from the team that was based in the hospital. It changed my life in that it gave me more time.”
In 2012, while John was still on dialysis, a nurse at the City Hospital suggested that he should take part in the European Games which, handily for him, were just down the road in Dublin that year. Two years later came Croatia, and by the time he next travelled to compete, in Krakow, he had received his new organ.
“I was on dialysis for about four and a half years and, given my age, I didn’t really expect that I would get a transplant. I went to the hospital and woke up the next day with a new kidney. One of the things I always think about is the generosity of the donor. I don’t know anything about them other than this is what they committed to,” he says.
“I’m amazed at the whole thing; the idea of transplanting organs is an amazing achievement. People think of big things like going to the moon – I think transplanting organs between humans is beyond that and when you think of the knowledge, care and social commitment to do such things, it's mind boggling."
The World Transplant Games is a biennial event in which only transplant recipients can take part. More than 2,000 participants are expected at this year's games in sports including athletics, badminton, swimming, 10-pin bowling and darts, to name a few.
Transplant Team Ireland is a part of the Irish Kidney Association which promotes organ donation and transplantation through sport. Ranging in age from 30 to 79, and hailing from Co Antrim to Co Cork, the squad includes five liver-transplant recipients and 23 who have undergone kidney transplants. One of the kidney transplant recipients is the father of a deceased organ donor.
John, who is originally from Co Tyrone, sees himself as very lucky in comparison to others transplant recipients.
"I have met people who have had second transplants; I’ve met people who have had failed transplants and are back on dialysis – these are potentially the disappointments,” he admits.
He explains that he “didn’t have the pressure of meeting job commitments" like so many other people have to do – "young people in their 20s and 30s juggling studying or work with their training".
"That’s the real challenge," he added.
“I have time to focus on the games so, weather permitting, I would play at least nine holes a day three times a week. I also walk every day and use an exercise bike."
John has always participated in a range of sports "at a mediocre level" as he modestly puts if.
"Back in the 50s I played for St Patrick's Academy Dungannon and Stewartstown Harps. I don’t think I would have been able to go through the process of having a kidney transplant without being fit. I gave up smoking about 25 years ago and I’m really looking after myself now," he says.
“Keeping fit is incredibly important for when something comes up that you didn’t think would happen. The games is a big colourful event and joyful celebration, I like getting together with the group and just achieving something beyond what is expected of you.
“We also try and get some publicity about getting people to carry a donor card. All people need to do is make a commitment and tell their friends that that is what they want. So much can be done now [in terms of organ transplanting] and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t possible.
“That’s what the games in all about – that and saying thank you to the donors and their families."
:: The World Transplant Games take place in Malaga, June 25 to July 2. To contact the Irish Kidney Association or for more information see www.ika.ie. For more information on organ donation in Northern Ireland and to register as a donor see www.organdonationni.info