Patricia Watts has given her brother Harry the gift of life- donating one of her kidneys to him after losing both of his to genetic kidney disease. Her selfless act not only saved her brother but herself- she would have never otherwise known that she was the carrier of a ‘silent killer’, and her own life could have panned out differently.
By jini gilbert-Finnigan
Patricia and I crossed paths during our days at Post-Secondary school in the Seychelles in the mid-90s. After our studies, life took us on different journeys-I ended up settling in the UK and Patricia in the USA, and it wasn’t until 2008 that we reconnected. One day, during one of our many chats, Patricia told me that her brother Harry is really poorly, and she had decided to donate one of her kidneys; I was in awe of her bravery. She said to me, “It was an easy decision, but I’m scared”, and that’s when I knew she was a special person. The road to their surgeries was far from easy, and after it was all over, I told Patricia that I hope she shares her story one day. This year, two years after her surgery-a few days after one of our conversations, I received a message from Patricia, “I would love for you to write my story as I never got to do it.”
And this is her story.
From the Seychelles to the States
Patricia Watts, née Samson, stands at just 5”4, petite, with the biggest smile, hails from Mahe, Seychelles. She has been married to James Watts from Canada for 17 years, and they have 3 children, Andre and Sophia, who are 14-year-old twins (Patricia is also a twin) and Julien, who is 12. She moved to the US in 1995 and is now settled in Watertown, New York. Watertown is a small town in Northern New York, where winter temperatures sometimes drop to -40 degrees Celsius. For someone coming from a tropical island, you would think she would have settled somewhere warmer, but Patricia loves it there. “ I get to enjoy the four seasons, and I embrace the beauty and memories all four seasons bring. The summers here are unbelievable, with world-renowned sunsets. Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River are easily accessible if you want to spend an afternoon on the water. Canada is right around the corner, so we are not far from our family in Canada. It is easy to balance the stressful work environment with all the beauty this area provides. During the spring and summer months, I get to spend countless hours in my beautiful gardens, and I love it.”
Patricia’s caring nature lead her to a career working with children. “I work with children from birth to 5 years of age, which is an incredibly challenging but extremely rewarding population to work with. As a speech and language pathologist, I assess, diagnose, treat, and help to prevent communication and swallowing disorders in children. I completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at the State University of New York at Geneseo. Following graduate school, I was obligated to undergo a clinical fellowship year to be certified to work in New York State as a speech and language pathologist. I did my clinical fellowship year in a hospital in Warsaw, New York. Through my work experience, I have met some warm and wonderful people who have surrounded me and have become my support system and family.”
Where it all Started
Patricia regularly visits Seychelles; this is where it all began; her mother, older sister and brother, Esmée and Harry and her twin brother, Patrick, all still live in Seychelles. But even growing up in a close-knit family surrounded by the beauty of the islands came with its challenges- “I had a happy childhood growing up at Grand Anse, Mahe, very close to the beach, our family later moved to Morne Blanc where my parents built our family home. We had a farm, and we were kept busy feeding goats, rabbits, chicken, tortoises and tending to our vegetables. Of course, there were also our studies, and my parents monitored us closely and guided us to ensure that we did well at school. I was active in sports, but the greatest accomplishment was winning the National School Quiz competition for the Port Glaud school, alongside my twin brother and two other classmates. We were the talk of the island, as Port Glaud was a small village school, and we won against the bigger schools.”
The biggest challenge for Patricia and her family was coping with her father’s illness; he was diagnosed with Chronic Kidney disease. “Was I always happy? The answer is no. It was a challenge, and the greatest challenge growing up was dealing with my dad’s disease. He went through a lot; at that time, there was not much development in the medical field in Seychelles with regards to kidney patients. There were no proper dialysis facilities, and he was hospitalised every now and then.”
Then in 1987, the Samson family’s world was shattered, “In February that year, my dad was flown out to the UK for a kidney transplant, as one of his kidneys had been removed 14 years earlier, the other one was failing, and in the absence of dialysis, he was deteriorating rapidly. My mum was the donor and accompanied him to the UK. That was the last time we saw him alive. My dad died, at only 47, following an unsuccessful kidney transplant. Kidney disease runs in my family.”
” My mum is still going strong at 78 years old and has been living with one kidney for 33 years. She is well known in the Seychelles as she religiously goes to the market every Saturday morning to sell her home-grown flower bouquets and vegetables.”
Following their father’s passing, Patricia and her siblings had to be tested for the disease as it is hereditary. Whilst Patricia and her twin brother Patrick got a clean bill of health, unfortunately, both her older siblings Harry and Esmée had polycystic kidneys. Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is an inherited disorder in which clusters of cysts develop primarily within the kidneys, causing them to enlarge and lose function over time. After the diagnosis, Harry had to be monitored closely.
“ Follow-ups were done regularly. Harry’s kidneys were deteriorating rapidly. It was inevitable that he was heading for dialysis, and he started on 21st September 2017. He was a commercial pilot, and he ended up losing his license due to his medical issues. He had by then reconciled that he would concentrate his efforts on running his business. He was happy to be self-employed as he wasn’t feeling well.”
Harry needed to take things easy, and he more than ever before needed his family. “ Both his immediate family- his wonderful wife Febrona and two children, Sebastien then 12 years old and Aurelie, 7, accepted that he was sick and gave him their utmost support. We, his siblings, and mum also pitched in at any moment that he needed help to complete arduous tasks he could not do anymore. Yet, he was always positive and did not let the disease beat him.”
Patricia knew deep down in her heart that should the time come to donate a kidney to one of her siblings, and she would do it in a heartbeat. “ I always knew that I would donate a kidney to the first sibling who needed it. I verbally expressed that to them. Then, in October 2017, I received a phone call from Harry, with the dreadful news that his health was deteriorating quickly with the kidney disease. I immediately knew where the conversation was leading to, and I immediately assured him that I would donate a kidney if I were a match.”
In December that year, Patricia flew to the Seychelles to get tested by the Victoria hospital to establish whether she was the right candidate for the organ donation. “ While in Seychelles, I decided to accompany Harry to one of his dialysis sessions which lasted for four hours. The severity of the disease and his condition hit home, and in that particular moment, I was self-assured; what I saw cemented my decision to donate my kidney. At that time, he had dialysis three times per week.”
It was an anxious wait for the results, and after a couple of weeks, Patricia’s tests confirmed that she was healthy and a potential donor; with that knowledge, she returned to the United States, where life returned to normal.
The Bad News
Five months later, in May 2018, Harry flew out to the Hemas Hospital in Sri Lanka for a transplant pre-evaluation. Unfortunately, the news was not good; both of Harry’s kidneys were failing, and he was advised to have both kidneys removed as they were bringing more complications. “ Initially, he was disconcerted, but with the help of counselling, he accepted his fate and consented to the surgery to have both kidneys removed. My decision to be a donor was now locked in; time was not in our favour, but we had to wait at least three months for Harry’s body to recuperate as two major operations so close together would be taxing, and he would be too weak.”
In it Together
In August 2018, Patricia flew back to Seychelles to travel with Harry from Seychelles to Sri Lanka. Once they arrived at the Hemas hospital in Colombo, a shocking discovery quickly dashed their hopes. It came to their attention that foreign kidney transplant surgery was banned in Sri Lanka due to organ trafficking. Unfortunately, this vital and critical information was never communicated to them before leaving the Seychelles. “ For two weeks, we had to jump through numerous hoops to have the surgeries approved by the Sri Lankan government, and we were determined to make this happen. We had come so far, and we were not about to give up. Both Harry and I were ecstatic and celebrated when we found out the pre-surgery tests and the potential surgeries had been approved.”
However, the celebration was short-lived; the joy they felt would soon fade away by another devastating news. Following the pre-surgery evaluations, an incidental finding on Patricia’s CT scan showed that she had a splenic artery aneurysm, which was almost 2cm dilated. Patients with splenic artery aneurysms are usually asymptomatic, and most are diagnosed incidentally. Splenic artery aneurysm can be complicated by rupture resulting in hypovolemic shock, which could be fatal. Aneurysms are known to be ‘silent killers’ because the patient shows very little or no symptoms. Patricia couldn’t believe their bad luck.“It had to be repaired; otherwise, it could kill me. My world crumbled before my eyes. In the real world, I was no longer a healthy donor. When you donate a kidney, you are not considered a patient; you are just a donor. In this case, I was now a patient.”
Patricia was now faced with questions and uncertainties. “What do I do? What can I do? I had such a hard time processing everything. I could see in Harry’s eyes that he had lost hope. I was heartbroken. As much as he desperately needed that one kidney of mine, he had never tried to influence my decision to be his donor. During counselling, I realised that the surgery for Harry was turning out to be a miracle for me. Various options were presented to me. Ultimately, I chose the surgery that no surgeons had performed before, that is, repairing the aneurysm and removing a kidney simultaneously. I was not a candidate for the endovascular surgery (coiling) for the aneurysm due to the size of the opening at the base of the aneurysm. In my case, doing the surgery laparoscopically was not an option, so I was faced with open surgery.”
The surgeries took place in September 2018, and for Patricia, they lasted almost six hours, longer than anticipated, due to complications of the aneurysm being under her pancreas. Once the aneurysm was repaired, her kidney, destined for Harry, was removed. Harry’s surgery was shorter, about two hours, both surgeries were successful. Patricia couldn’t sing enough praises for the team at Hemas Hospital in Sri Lanka; Dr Niroshan Seneviratne (surgeon), Dr Chintana Galahitiyawa (nephrologist), and other doctors and nurses for saving their lives. “ When I woke up, I was in terrible pain and could see Harry in a glass room. The drugs made me throw up, and in doing so, I was in more excruciating pain. Harry would cry every time I threw up as he couldn’t bear seeing me in so much pain. I spent four days in the ICU and was then moved to my room, whilst Harry spent seven days in there, in a sterile glass room to ensure that he did not pick up any infection as his immune system was fragile, they needed to make sure his body was not rejecting my kidney. My incision was way bigger than anticipated as they had to repair the aneurysm. Harry’s incision was smaller. The hospital staff, both doctors and nurses, took great care of us, and because of their dedication and round the clock care, we recuperated without any hiccups.”
Love and Support
The mental strength that both Patricia and Harry displayed during this challenging time is one to be admired, but there is no doubt that love and support were vital for their unbelievable journey. “ My mum and sister both flew up one day before the surgery. They visited us in the hospital and lifted our spirits. I flew back to Seychelles after two weeks, and Harry followed two weeks later. The family rallied to take care of us, and the Seychelles hospital staff who attended to us were fantastic. When I look back, a whole community from the United States, spanning all the way to the Seychelles, over to Sri Lanka, made the surgery possible and a success. I had to leave my husband and my three children (two 12-year olds and a 10-year-old at the time) for two months. My family had a lot of support from my American friends, who catered meals for the family as my husband had to work. They also provided rides to their sporting practices and events, as well as entertainment. Quick visits by our Canadian relatives over the weekend made the kids’ day. I was amazed at the outpouring of love and support from everyone. It was not easy being so far away from them for so long, but the feeling of helplessness was washed away by the updates of how well my family was doing. I am very grateful to all who helped out, and more importantly, I was very proud of my children who matured through this family experience.”
“It took me about 14 months to feel ‘normal’ again. I am enjoying life as well as the family. There is nothing I do not do. Harry also has his check-ups more frequently than me, and so far, all the results are still ok. He has a new lease on life and making the most of it. Not having to go for dialysis has returned some normalcy to his everyday life, even if he has to take many medications. It has given him a new perspective and appreciation to live life to the fullest. My little kidney has given Harry hope to see his kids grow up; he can now dream again. What I take from this whole experience is I saved Harry and Harry saved me. The aneurysm could have killed me. I am healthier now with the repaired aneurysm and one kidney.”
” This chapter of my life will forever remind me that family is the illumination and connection of your heart, mind and soul and growing together, and supporting one another through all the ups and downs life will present. My family is now stronger than ever. The bonds that we share have strengthened. It also taught me that family is also a community coming together to get you through tough times. To be truly happy, you need to put the virtue of selflessness into action to help other people benefit positively from your energy, efforts and kindness without asking for anything in return.”
The miracle of the surgery means that one of Patricia’s kidneys now functions inside her brother, replacing the tiredness and the lethargy with the energetic and happy life he deserves. Moreover, the gift gave Harry precious time with his wife and children, precious time that he himself was denied when his father’s surgery failed. As for Patricia, the 30 cm scar is a reminder of what has been. She saved her brother, and he saved her.
And as for me, as Patricia’s friend, their happy ending gave me a lot of comforts because six years earlier, I lost my father to the ‘silent killer’. So what I got out of this beautiful and inspiring story – I will truly honour Walt Disney’s words, “Life is beautiful. It’s about giving. It’s about family.”