A FATHER-of-two is giving his best friend a gift of life - by donating one of his kidneys.

In what is believed to be the first friend-to-friend organ transplant in the region, Derek Marshall, 56, is giving his life-long mate Bill Brough, 54, a kidney.

Both hope that their example will encourage other close friends to come forward and donate their kidneys at a time when waiting lists are lengthening.

At least one other pair of friends in the region is said to be considering a transplant next year.

The two-hour twin operation is due to take place at the regional transplant centre at Newcastle's Freeman Hospital next Wednesday.

Unlike kidneys obtained from donors after death, there is no need for a close tissue match from a live donor.

As long as the donor is fit and healthy and has the same blood group as the recipient, the transplant has a good chance of success.

If the operation works, it will mean Bill will be able to live a near-normal life.

It will liberate him from punishing four-hour sessions on a kidney machine three times a week and other restrictions on his life.

But for Bill, who has known Derek since they were five-year-olds at Whinney Banks Primary School, Middlesbrough, it is much more than that.

The businessman broke down in tears as he said: "If I believed there was any risk to Derek, I wouldn't accept this gift of life he is giving to me. It is the most incredible thing he is doing."

Derek, who used to run his own haulage business before joining Bill's firm, said giving a kidney to help his friend was the obvious thing to do, despite the risk posed by major surgery.

"If you were a brother you wouldn't hesitate. I can manage perfectly well with one kidney," said Derek, who lives in the Nunthorpe area.

Until he became dangerously ill after a trip to Mexico last year, Bill had enjoyed excellent health.

A go-getting businessman who runs OBC shipping, a large international company, Bill commuted all over the world and worked a 60-hour week.

But in September last year, what was at first suspected as pneumonia was diagnosed as Legionnaire's Disease, a dangerous bacterial illness which kills one in five who catches it.

"I was in intensive care for weeks with tubes and wires everywhere. The people in there did a fantastic job, they saved my life," said Bill.

Derek, who was best man at Bill's wedding and is godfather to his two teenage daughters, was by his friend's bedside at James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough as often as he could be.

"We didn't know whether he would make it. The nurses told me to keep on talking to him to see if he would respond," said Derek, who has two grown-up sons.

Bill, who lives in the Great Ayton area, was told he would have to rely on kidney dialysis for the rest of his life, unless a suitable donor could be found.

With 5,600 people on the waiting list for transplants, his consultant, Stephen Kardasz, asked whether any members of Bill's family might be suitable donors.

As a last resort, Derek suggested having tests to see if he could be a donor.

Derek admits that the prospect of the operation was "nerve-wracking" but urged others to do the same.

Mandy McGowan, the transplant co-ordinator at James Cook University Hospital who advised the two friends, said: "It is a wonderful thing that Derek is doing for his friend. You know that they really care about each other."

l For more information on the organ donation register - ring 0845 6060 400.

The full story - See Health Page in tomorrow's Northern Ech