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INTERVIEW Me and my (second) new kidney

Darren Cawley, who has just received his second kidney transplant in 11 years.
Darren Cawley, who has just received his second kidney transplant in 11 years.

A new beginning, again

Áine Ryan

IT is less than a month since Darren Cawley had an organ replaced. For the second time, in just over a decade. No wonder he walks stiffly. No wonder the handsome 32-year-old seemed a little delicate, worn out, when we met last week in the lobby of a Westport hotel. Since his release from Beaumont Hospital, over a fortnight ago, he has been criss-crossing the country for check-ups every few days. 

Sports mad
From an early age, while attending the three-teacher national school in Knockrooskey,  Aughagower native, Darren Cawley was sports-mad. This passion continued when he moved on to secondary school at Rice College, where he loved rugby, soccer and gaelic.
“I had a very normal childhood, cycling to school and helping out on a friend’s farm. I just loved sport, particularly boxing and went on to win Mayo and Connaught titles in boxing,” says Darren.
The son of well-known taxi drivers Christy and Aileen Cawley, Darren is the second eldest of the close-knit family, with four sisters, Martina, Lisa, Emma and Laura. Unsurprisingly, Darren chose to do a Sports degree when he went on to third level at the University of Bedfordshire.

Near miss
“I had an amazing time at college, there was great camaraderie. We only had eight hours of lectures a week, so there was lots of socialising and fun. But then in my second year, I started to get blurred vision and headaches. I assumed I needed glasses.”
Unconcerned, he made an appointment with the college doctor. She dismissed the headaches, – assuming that, since it was near exam time, he was trying to avoid them. However, she did suggest he attend an optician ‘if he wanted’.
“The optician spent about 15 or 20 minutes looking at my eyes. Then he gave me a letter and told me to go immediately to the ER room in the hospital. I said ‘but I have a Gaelic match tonight, I’ll try and get there in the next few days’, but he insisted I go immediately,” recalls Darren.
When he got to the ER, it was crowded but – surprisingly – he was seen within five minutes, once he had handed in his letter.  After being examined by an optician, his blood pressure was taken, it was an alarmingly high 205/117.
“Are your next of kin near by?”
Earlier, Darren had rung his mother, explaining that he was having a check-up but that there was nothing to worry about. The next phone call would not be quite as casual.

Life changing
“I was suddenly not even allowed out of bed, my blood pressure was so high there was a serious risk of having a stroke. They took urine and blood samples and then did a biopsy of the kidney, which showed I had renal failure.”
Twenty-year-old Darren was in disbelief, in shock and denial. He thought: “They’ll figure out it was the wrong diagnosis and everything will return to normal.”
“Essentially I went from being a healthy sports person to, two weeks later, having a line into my neck for fluids, drips stuck into me for antibiotics and I was hitched up to a dialysis machine.”

Transplant failure
However, this sudden setback did not stop Darren from completing his degree in June 1999 and six months later, in January 2000, undergoing a kidney transplant.
Naturally, getting that dramatic call from Beaumont Hospital to tell him there was a kidney available is etched deeply in his memory. No time, or option, for second thoughts. Darren and his family were flanked by a Garda escort to Dublin. Time was of the essence.
Little did he know, that eleven years later he would have to endure the same procedure again.
Darren’s first kidney transplant had failed within two years. He had contracted a polyomavirus, which may be like a simple cold for anyone else, but for Darren Cawley had serious repercussions. Bizarrely,  he felt ‘brilliant’ at the time. His next major surgery was in October 2002, during which he underwent a nephrectomy – kidney removal.
“Losing the kidney, that was a tough time afterwards. It was a depressing period and the future seemed bleak. Every second day I was on dialysis again.”
The fact that the virus remained in Darren’s system for four years afterwards prevented him from going on the transplant list. In fact, he had to be free of the virus for two years before that option became open once again.
“So for nine years I was in hospital for dialysis every second day. There was no going to Amercia for the summer, like my friends did. Basically, I missed out on my 20s.”

New beginning
But despite the difficulties, Darren led as active a life as possible, competing in the European Transplant and Dialysis Games last year and constantly championing the cause of organ donation throughout Mayo’s schools.
During this period, he also met the girl to whom he recently proposed, Aoife Mitchell, a law student from Westport. Coincidentally, he got the call for his second transplant on Wednesday, February 9, the same day he was en route to Dublin to buy an engagement ring.
Unsurprisingly, that day, Wednesday, February 9, was a nerve-wracking one. This time round he knew all about the pain and discomfort that was ahead of him – catheters, drips, injections, 24 staples. He also knew, it was his second chance at reclaiming a normal quality of life. Unshackled from a dialysis machine, Darren Cawley can go anywhere in the world for his honeymoon.

For more information on the Irish Kidney Association and on how to become a donor, visit