A North-East woman is preparing to donate a kidney to a total stranger so that her fiancé can finally have a chance of a normal life through a pioneering organ sharing scheme. PETER BARRON reports

THREE times a day, seven days a week, Kevin Taylor’s life is dominated by his dependence on dialysis to keep him alive as his kidney failure gets progressively worse.

But, hopefully, Kevin’s life will soon be transformed when he receives a kidney from someone he doesn’t know and is unlikely to ever meet.

In return, his fiancée, Vicki Robertson, will undergo an operation to donate a kidney to a stranger – even though she admits to being terrified of hospitals.

The Darlington couple will both endure three-hour operations at the same time as part of the UK Living Kidney Sharing Scheme. Launched in 2012, it enables pairs, who are incompatible for direct organ donations, to be ‘pooled’ with the aim of finding successful matches.

“I was initially disappointed that I couldn’t give my kidney directly to Kevin, but I know I’ll be helping someone else and, by doing that, Kevin also gets the chance of a life with some kind of normality,” says Vicki, 36.

“When you know someone has a health condition that affects them every day of their lives, and you are fit and healthy yourself, it’s just something that feels like the natural thing to do,” she adds.

Kevin, now 41, has lived with chronic kidney disease since he was 15 when he was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder called Wegener’s Granulomatosis.

Doctors broke the news more or less straight away that he’d need a transplant one day.

His condition meant he was unable to sit examinations at Carmel College, in Darlington, but he found a job at Stressholme Golf Club, picking up golf balls at first, and progressing to become assistant professional.

He went on to meet Vicki while playing online card games. He was 21 at the time, and she was 16, but their friendship grew, initially through keyboard chats over the following six months, then progressing to face to face meetings.

“I went up to Scotland, we just clicked straight away, and we’ve been together ever since,” says Kevin.

Vicki grew up in Kirriemuir, a small Scottish town that is the birthplace of JM Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan. For 17 years, while working in student finance at Dundee University, she and Kevin maintained a long-term relationship, taking it in turns to travel the 500-mile round trip at weekends to see each other.

In 2018, with Kevin’s condition continuing to deteriorate, Vicki took the plunge and moved to Darlington to run her town centre shop called Holly’s Doggy Deli – named after her beloved cocker spaniel.

Although the couple are engaged, they’ve resisted setting a wedding date because of the uncertainty surrounding Kevin’s health.

“We’ve talked about it over the years, but it never seemed right because we didn’t know what the future was going to hold,” explains Kevin.

His kidney function has plummeted to just eight per cent, his fitness has been badly affected, and he suffers from muscle loss, fatigue and confusion.

When golf became too physically demanding, he started working at William Hill bookmakers shop but has been on long-term sick for two years, with the company showing "huge understanding".

He’s been on the transplant list since 2019, and tests at that time showed that Vicki was a perfect tissue match though her blood wasn’t 100 per cent compatible.

They joined the living kidney transplant scheme but failed to find a match for nine months, so it was decided that the best option was for Vicki to become a direct donor. The transplant was scheduled for April last year, but the operation had to be cancelled with just a week to go because of Covid-19.

With much of the transplant programme put on hold during the pandemic, the couple were advised to rejoin the shared scheme when it resumed once lockdown restrictions had eased.

And to their surprise and joy, Vicki received a phone call from a renal nurse at James Cook University Hospital, in Middlesbrough, at the end of April, saying: “We’ve got some good news for you!”

The nurse told her a match had been found, and the transplants would be going ahead before July at Newcastle's Freeman Hospital.

“It’s fantastic news because there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Kevin.

“We’ve been together such a long time, so Vicki’s seen the decline in my health. Ideally, she would have been a direct donor but that’s no longer the best option. I’ll be gaining a kidney but she’ll be losing one, so it really is a massive thing for her to do.”

Naturally, Vicki’s anxious about what lies ahead: “I really don’t like hospitals – even having blood taken is a big deal for me, but it’s something I have to do,” she explains.

Doctors have told Kevin that his kidney function should rise to around 60 per cent once he receives a healthy kidney, but it’s likely he’ll need a second transplant within his lifetime.

In the meantime, Vicki will continue running her popular shop in Darlington town centre. Always by her side is Annie, a friendly cocker spaniel, who replaced Holly when she passed away a couple of years ago.

“It’s only just sinking in that the transplants are not far away, and we both just want to get on with it now, so we can, hopefully, start living a more normal life,” says Vicki.

“Kevin’s amazing – he’s lived with his illness for so long, but he’s always taken everything in his stride, and never lets it faze him. He just does what he can to make the most of life.

“In many ways, having one kidney will help me understand how Kevin feels, and it will make me happy and relieved that he’ll finally have a chance of a better life.”

The couple want to tell their story to highlight the importance of organ donation generally, as well as to promote the kidney sharing scheme.

“It’s always going to be better to have a kidney from a living person than one from someone who has died, so it’s really important that people know about the scheme,” says Kevin. “If more people did it, there’d be a lot less people on the waiting list.”

Vicki ruffles Annie's ears and adds: “We don’t know who will get my kidney, or who will be giving a kidney to Kevin. We don’t know their story, but we know we are doing the right thing for everyone involved.”

So, if everything goes according to plan, will a wedding date be set? “Yes, we’ll definitely be tying the knot,” smiles Kevin, without hesitation. “I think Vicki’s waited long enough."