A decade ago my kidney gave life to my husband … and our four children

This week my husband and I will wave goodbye to our twins, the youngest of our children, as they start school for the first time. It’s an emotional moment for all parents, particularly when it’s the last of your brood.

But for us there will be a special catch in our throats. At around the same time, on exactly the same day 10 years ago, James and I were saying a very different kind of nervous goodbye – to each other, as we went into separate operating theatres to undergo major organ surgery. I was giving James one of my kidneys. It was to save his life but, in many ways, my life was saved on that day, too.

His kidneys had failed in 2000 as a result of an incurable autoimmune disease called IgA nephropathy, and he had his first transplant from his brother in 2002. A perfect match, it should have lasted for 20 years. We met and got married and all was well. But the IgA came back. As the transplanted kidney slowly failed, toxins built up in James’s bloodstream and sickness crept over him, making him constantly nauseous and exhausted. He began to fade away, as did the hopes and dreams we had for our life together. By 2010, he needed dialysis to stay alive and we were faced with a future of waiting. Waiting for a transplant and life – also, maybe, for death. James still resisted my offer to become a donor – he’d already taken his brother’s kidney and couldn’t bear to take his wife’s as well. But for me, it was so simple. I wanted our life back and all we needed was a kidney. Giving up one of mine seemed a very small price to pay to fix everything.

And it worked, although there were a few dicey days after the operation when surgical complications almost got the better of him. Several months of infections and hospital admissions then followed – a bottle of champagne we’d bought to celebrate the “moment” he was well again sat unopened for a long time.

But 10 years on, my kidney is still working away inside him pretty much as well as it did on that very first day when they plumbed it at the Royal Free hospital in London. And we now have four children that had previously never seemed possible to prove it. James is in as good health as he ever has been – he has check-ups three times a year and only takes a handful of pills now, compared with the 30-odd before.

I have had no ill effects at all, including throughout my pregnancies. My scar, the thought of which sickened James at the time, has since been used for three caesarean sections. New life has overtaken us both, in the best way possible.

We moved to Beirut in the year after the transplant, to have an adventure in the world we had felt shut off from for so long. The following year we had our daughter, Elizabeth, and not long after that, our son, Kit. Then came the twins, Tilly and William.

Tilly has Down’s syndrome, only discovered the day she and William were born. It knocked us sideways and, for a while, I struggled. I had fixed James. I wanted to “fix” Tilly, too. But Down’s isn’t something to battle or overcome, it’s something to accept and cherish. Tilly doesn’t need fixing – she is who she is, as precious a gift as all our children are.

As you can see in a short film we made in 2010 for the Guardian website about our experiences, the transplant brought James back to life. And the good news is that since then organ donation rules have changed, so that people have to opt out of becoming donors, which should increase the number of lives, like ours, that can be transformed.

But there is a sad irony at the moment that the same life-giving transplant also makes James extremely vulnerable to Covid-19. The anti-rejection drugs suppress his immune system, meaning he is highly susceptible to infections. When lockdown began and we got the official letter saying James had to shield, we suddenly managed to get highly sought-after supermarket delivery slots. But it wasn’t exactly like receiving one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets. If he gets Covid, the odds are stacked against him.

The “underlying health conditions” that could now kill him, however, seem like they belong to another person. We live in Cornwall and are lucky enough to have a house right beside the sea. We are on the beach pretty much every day and our life is full to the brim with fresh salty air and ice cream. I can’t imagine a more magical place to watch our children grow up, with their father mucking about beside them.

Ten years ago we couldn’t even contemplate having children. The transplant gave us a second chance at life and we knew we had to make the most of it, as we didn’t know how long it would last. Inevitably, as the scars have faded and the demands of four children have swallowed us up, we’re as guilty as anyone else of taking things for granted.

But this week is a good reminder that neither James, nor any of our children, would be here today without the incredible feat of science that is transplant medicine and the amazing clinicians who make it a reality for people like us.

It’s taken the threat of Covid to bring home all those dark days of 2010. Maybe a glass of champagne on the beach while the kids are at school on Tuesday is just what we need to appreciate the extraordinary light that’s now in our life.

View Rachel Stevenson’s film at gu.com/donating-a-kidney