Fiona Couchman, organiser of the Christmas Magic in Martinborough show, sits with the collection of presents from the event. PHOTO/EMILY IRELAND

Kidney donor celebrates spirit of giving at Christmas time

Emily Ireland

Martinborough’s Fiona Couchman is the embodiment of giving.

A survivor of abuse and hardship, she grew up with an “innate need to help others”.

Fiona was the organiser of this year’s Christmas Magic in Martinborough show which saw the collection of more than 200 presents for children in need around Wairarapa.

For her, the opportunity to make life better for others is what drives her.

“I realised at a very early age that there were people less privileged than me,” she said, referring to her transient childhood.

But Fiona’s life was far from privileged.

She came from a poor upbringing where alcohol and abuse played a factor, her mother spent many years in and out of hospitals and she and her two siblings lived in foster care including the Home of Compassion in Island Bay and Whatman Home.

From the age of 12, Fiona was running the family home and caring for her brothers, one of whom suffered severe mental health.

But Fiona was touched by the orphans and children who were abandoned, as in those days many thalidomide children were given up by their parents and they spent their whole life in orphanages.

So, when her friend Tracy Johnson was in need of a new kidney, Fiona offered up her own just in time for them both to celebrate Christmas last year.

Little did she know that when she made the promise to her friend that her own brother would need a kidney as well.

Fiona first met her friend Tracy 23 years ago when their children were born.

Years later, Tracy was working with Fiona but started to show symptoms of kidney disease and she was forced to quit work and go on dialysis.

“She was an amazing single mum . . . but she couldn’t do anything on dialysis because it tied her to her home.

“I said, let me help you – I’ll give you my kidney.”

The two friends discovered that, because they were different blood types, they would not be compatible for the transplant at the time.

That was our journey – it ended, and I couldn’t help her.

“I watched her suffer on dialysis.

“About 14 years ago, she got a phone call on Christmas Eve at 4am saying, get into hospital, there’s a cadaver here for you.”

Tracy had the transplant on Christmas Day and lived a healthy 10 years before she “went downhill”.

In the meantime, a new medical breakthrough meant Fiona was able to give Tracy her kidney, but the procedure would have to be done in Auckland.

“We’d gone to a psychologist and they asked us a lot about our lives.

“She was asked, what if in five years’ time, someone in your family needs a kidney transplant and you can’t give them one – what would you do?

“I said, I can only do what I can do with what I have at the time, and I have made a commitment to Tracy.

“We carried on, went through Christmas, the New Year.

“In the meantime, Tracy plummeted and got very unwell.”

This was when Fiona was contacted by her brother’s carers, her brother lives in supervised care under the mental health recovery service – “my brother needed to see a kidney specialist because he had been on lithium for 10 years – It destroys your kidneys.

“I realised that at some stage Gerard would be facing a kidney transplant, but I had made a promise to help my friend.

“Tracy has a mortgage, three children, their lives were very different, and a promise is a promise.”

On November 13 last year, Fiona was finally able to give up her kidney for her friend.

“They did about eight operations that weekend – I was the only live donor.

“They knew immediately it was a success, more people need to consider becoming a donor.

Her brother continues to receive care under the urology team, and while he has reached 13 per cent kidney function at times he is not yet on dialysis.

Fiona is looking for accommodation within Wairarapa to care for her brother, so he can be closer to her when he needs her.

And what has changed for Tracy since her transplant?

“Tracy loves chocolate and red wine now – we laugh about that, and she has remained healthy.”