Constable Lucie Joines knew her colleague Angela Valentine, a support officer at Timaru Police Station, was suffering.
In 2019, Angela’s son, Jared, had been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. He was 38 years old and the prognosis was that some time soon, from two months to two years, he would need dialysis.
The father of two had three tough choices: either wait to start dialysis, with a life expectancy of five years; wait for a potential organ donor to die (a waiting list of three to eight years); or – the best option – find a living donor.
Timaru is a small place and Lucie knew something of the dilemma Jared and his family were facing because she is also friends with his wife, Charlotte.
Lucie knew that Jared’s father had started the process to be a live donor, but was not a match, and that the family had set up a Facebook page giving updates and seeking donors.
Lucie decided to put her name on the list. She didn’t know much about kidneys, or being a donor, and had never had an operation, but, she says, it was a “no-brainer” to volunteer. “I thought, well, I’ve got a spare, healthy kidney. He can have it.”
In a short space of time, after another person on the list proved incompatible, she was asked if she was ready to step up.
Lucie, 39, is the mother of five boys aged four to 19, works 23 hours a week as a specialist interviewer in child protection cases and is the team leader in the police negotiation team. She’s married to Will Joines, a community constable in Timaru. They live on a lifestyle block just out of the town and foster children through Oranga Tamariki – “When you’ve got five kids already, you think, what’s a couple more.”
So, it’s not as if she has a lot of spare time. However, following the adage that if you want something done, give it to a busy person, Lucie said yes.
Did she ask her family first? Well, she says, not really ask, but more tell them what she was hoping to do. “They were fine with it!”
There were two reasons to do it and only one not to, she says. Firstly, she couldn’t bear the thought of Angela losing her only child and, secondly, she didn’t want her friend Charlotte to lose her husband or their two daughters to grow up without their dad.
“The only reason that could have stopped me was if one of my children got sick with something kidney related, but the chances were slim, and I figured I had four other kids to donate a kidney to them. Although they fight over sharing Weet-Bix Stat Attack cards so it would be a big ask…”
But she did first contact a close friend who had been a kidney donor. “I wanted to ask her if she’d had any regrets. She told me, ‘Absolutely none. I’d do it again in a heartbeat’.”
That sealed it. The process to test for compatibility began in July 2020 and, after it was established that she would fit the bill, there was a long round of blood, tissue and kidney tests that took until October to complete. “I knew from day dot that I would be successful in being a match with Jared and actually felt excited about the new venture.”
Lucie had previously met Jared only a couple of times, but they got to know each other better once they knew she would be the donor.
By that stage, Jared, who had been employed by Fonterra, was too ill to work. His kidney function, which had been at 17 per cent when he was first diagnosed, was plummeting. He was in a bad way. He slept a lot – 16 to 20 hours a day – and suffered with headaches, itchy skin, vomiting and diarrhoea as his body struggled to expel the build-up of toxins that occurs when kidneys shut down. “He was miserable,” recalls Lucie.
They had to wait for the medical team to schedule the surgery at Christchurch Hospital and, eventually, the date was set for August 2 this year.
Lucie took six weeks’ leave without pay. “Police was very happy to support me with this elective surgery and give me the leave, and the Canterbury District Health Board covers my earnings.”
She couldn’t see Jared before the operation because he was in isolation. She went into surgery first, for a three-and-a-half-hour operation that was followed by Jared’s six-hour surgery during which her left kidney was “plumbed in” to his right pelvic area.
Almost immediately after the surgery, Jared’s kidney function went from a critical 10 per cent just before the operation to 79 per cent. He was doing well and far exceeding expectations, says Lucie.
Meanwhile, Lucie’s body went into a sulk. “It went into shock, and it took a while for everything to adjust.” She recuperated in hospital for a few days, then in a Police Association Holiday Home in Christchurch with help from a friend. “I was joking about how I had to give away a kidney to get some peace and quiet from the family.”
She admits that the operation knocked her around a bit more than she had expected – “I mean, I’ve had five babies, so I thought it can’t be more painful than childbirth” – but, she says, the reward has far outweighed any difficulties in the recovery process.
“Jared is getting stronger by the day and is staying in Christchurch for eight weeks to attend a kidney clinic. Some days are hard, adjusting to all the medication, but he has so much energy and the future looks bright again.”
And a strong bond has been formed. “It’s actually become very emotional, which took me by surprise after having been so matter-of-fact about being a donor.”
She acknowledges that she has prolonged, even saved, Jared’s life, “but I don’t like to think of it that way”.
“It’s an act that won't affect my life greatly in the future, but it will give his family a future. He needed a kidney more than me, and I had a spare. The gratitude and love from Jared’s family is just indescribable and touching.”
In four months, Lucie says she should be pretty much 100 per cent again.
Our kidneys are amazing organs, and so vital to life that we are born with two of them when we really only need one, and live kidney donation is considered the best treatment for someone with renal disease.
Over the past year, Lucie says, 4946 people have been treated for kidney failure in New Zealand and there have been only 91 live donor transplants.
The experience has changed her perspective on many things. “I would highly recommend being a donor, not just for a kidney, but for anything – blood, plasma – it can change a whole family’s life.”
The prognosis for Jared is that his new kidney will last for at least 20 years, probably longer, she says. “The record for a living transplanted kidney is 50 years, so with my grade ‘A’ kidney, I’m aiming high for him.”