A former rugby player from Stockport has donated his kidney to a stranger, so that his brother could receive a vital life transforming donation.
Joe Roe, who is 29 years-old, put himself forward for the UK Living Kidney Sharing Scheme in July, to help his older brother Sean, who is 33 years-old, and needed a kidney transplant.
The UK Living Kidney Sharing Scheme allows relatives or friends who wish to donate an organ to a loved one, but are unable to due to incompatibility, to donate into a national pool that helps to identify a suitable organ from elsewhere.
Joe said: “I couldn’t bear seeing my brother suffer when I knew there was something I could do about it.
“The way I view it is, I was going to donate directly to Sean anyway, but through complications I wasn’t an exact match, so it didn’t matter to me that my kidney was going to a stranger. In my head I’ve donated to my brother.
“The beautiful thing that I found out was that I actually helped three families from my one donation. I received an official card, after the operation and it explained how I’d helped.
“I’m not an emotional man, but I was in tears, I was in bits. I just thought I’ve got three grown adults that are living life, because of my donation.”
The brothers underwent their operations in rooms next door to each other at Manchester Royal Infirmary and are both now doing well.
Sean, who has a 12-year-old daughter and a nine-year-old son, said: “What my brother has done for me is phenomenal. There was a sense that I didn’t want to accept it, as you’ve always got to look at the risks associated with any operation.
“But at the same time, I’ve got a young family and I need to earn a certain amount of money, just to live and provide for them.
“When you put it all in perspective, when someone offers you a kidney, you don’t really have that much of a choice.”
Sean first noticed something was wrong in 2015, when his vision suddenly started to go blurry. After visiting the opticians, he was told he needed to go to hospital urgently for further tests.
Doctors found he’d contracted a virus which caused a rare immune response to attack and weaken his blood vessels, sending his blood pressure soaring and also causing his kidneys to fail.
Sean underwent dialysis to keep him alive and then his father stepped in to donate a kidney directly to him.
“My dad was astonishing too, as I received a direct kidney donation from him in 2016. That went really well for five years.
But sometime in 2021, his legs started to get swollen again and he wasn’t passing urine. Unfortunately, he found out that the kidney donated from his father had started to fail and he was put back on dialysis for eighteen months.
Joe had offered to donate his kidney the first time Sean had needed it, but he was playing professional rugby in Ireland at the time.
Joe said: “This time around, I could see my brother’s health declining, so straight away I put my hand back up and went to get my tests.
“Even though I wasn’t a direct match, I asked what the options were and the medical professionals introduced me to the UK Living Kidney Sharing Scheme and explained everything.
“I was determined to donate, so it was a win-win.
“As soon as Sean was at a healthy point for a transplant, we were put on the list. Within two weeks, we had a match. We were incredibly fortunate that we got it done quickly.”
Sean says: “I could have been on the transplant list for years and years, but because Joe was young and could have been a match for more people, it really helped.
“The team that helped us at Manchester Royal Infirmary were outstanding, from the janitor to the nurses and doctors. It was top level.”
Giuseppe Giuffrida, a Senior Clinical Fellow in the Transplant Unit, performed the surgery on Sean and Joe, on the same day.
He says: “It was a real pleasure help both brothers to achieve their goals and I wish them all the best for their future.
“Without a transplant, kidney patients must rely on dialysis treatment to keep them alive, which isn’t a long-term fix. This story really highlights the impact this life-saving surgery can have on a transplant recipient, and how a family member donating an incompatible organ can help not only their relative but also multiple recipients”.
Joe is engaged and hopefully getting married next year. He also has a three-year-old son. He ended his professional rugby career playing for Nottingham R.F.C. and after a stint in the family business, now runs his own recruitment business.
He says: “From a younger brother’s perspective, I always really looked up to Sean. The hard bit is when you see the rock of the family, who was always very strong in the gym and was the one who introduced me to rugby, being ill.
“In my head I couldn’t perceive him suffering with something he hadn’t brought on himself. It was just an unfortunate thing that happened in his life.”
Sean, who has started working again as director of an asset management company, had kept himself fit and active from a young age playing rugby for Cheshire and North of England in his teens.
“I was always fit and healthy, at the gym five times a week before I got ill. So, it shocked some people to see what happened to me.”
“All in all, being given the kidney donation and medical help is a very humbling experience which I feel very lucky for.
“All I can say is that I cannot thank my brother enough and I’m grateful that I have a really good supportive family around me. I’m now looking forward to getting on with my life.”