Local heroes team up to save more lives through organ donations

Joe Brolly and Ryan O'Connor. 10288KDR
Joe Brolly and Ryan O'Connor. 10288KDR

Derry GAA All Star Joe Brolly won the praise of thousands after his act of exceptional kindness in donating his kidney to his friend Shane Finnegan.

The Dungiven barrister was hailed an inspiration last year, and rightly so.

It was devastating for all concerned when the transplant failed. However, that has been the catalyst for Joe to drive a nationwide campaign to change the law regarding organ donation.

Currently, anyone who wants to become an organ donor when they die must have registered their wishes in advance.

Under the new proposals, says Joe, people would be presumed to have given consent for their organs to be donated upon their death, unless they have opted out.

“The ‘soft opt out’ means that even if you don’t opt out during your lifetime, then your next of kin will still have the final say on whether to permit your organs to be used,” says Joe.

The ‘Journal’ columnist has won support on both sides of the border, and is confident that the life-saving change in law will happen.

“It’s not that people don’t want to donate. It’s just that they don’t have a proper system that properly reflects people’s views on donation,” Joe told the ‘Journal’.

“People think that organ donation is a good thing, so let’s give them a system that works. That’s basically it.”

On Friday, when Joe walked into his home club in Dungiven, it was his turn, however, to be inspired.

The dad-of-five, who had rushed down from Belfast with two of his children for the event, was the guest of honour at St. Canice’s GAC ladies’ football awards, along with 18-year-old Ryan O’Connor from the town.

The teenager had a heart transplant last year, but following complications, he went on to lose both his legs.

Ryan, resilient and pragmatic, says it’s not the end of the world.

For him it’s the start of something new.

Friday was the first time the pair met, and when Joe was asked to say a few words to the packed audience, he called Ryan an ‘inspiration’.

After the awards, the pair – deemed ‘local heroes’ on the night – chatted at length, mostly about Ryan’s story, along with some lighter moments where Joe even dished out some relationship pointers!

Relaxed and in top form, the pair sat down with the ‘Journal’ and Joe explained why he said Ryan was an inspiration.

“You don’t want to exaggerate these things either, but Ryan has to find his own way.

“He knows it won’t be easy but he comes from seriously good stock and had good people around him and he has a good community here.That will only take you so far but he has a great attitude and he’s smart and sensible,” said the GAA pundit.

“The thing is, whenyou lose your legs, and it’s impossible for me to imagine, you still have a lot of independence as long as you have your arms, and you can do all those things that are very important, and the big thing nowadays is that technology in relation to prosthetic legs is absolutely superb.

“I mean when we watched ‘The Bionic Man’, that was beyond our wildest dreams, and now we have guys who are getting blades and winning world championships and running in able-bodied competitions.”

Joe says young people in general are good at coping with diversity, but for someone like Ryan – who has been living with adversity since he was a child – “it makes him very, very tough”.

“I mean, my niece who came to live with us after her mum died, she got leukaemia and she was very very ill, but she’s as tough as nails.

“Life is no bother to her and there is definitely an element of that with Ryan,” said Joe.

“He’s very philosophical, and I got a glimpse of that world - of people who are very ill and are struggling and then they get a transplant and their life is transformed.

“Once Ryan gets through rehab he’ll get a brilliant set of legs and it will be another adventure for him.

“Life is just one adventure after another and, in a way, he will have a more extraordinary life than any of us could ever imagine. So, it all looks very very positive.”

Joe says his own ‘small story’ and the celebrity around the transplant “was the starting gun for something that was really obvious for years”.

“It’s very difficult when you were in a position like I was, where everything looked good and then what happened.

“And of course, Shane isn’t transplantable now unless he can get a living donor. It’s an inspiration to me that Shane is working so hard to transform a system that’s not going to help him.

“So, I mean, that gives you an idea of the measure of the man,” said Joe.

“Mines is a very small story compared to stories like Shane and Ryan, and whenever people in their position are saying ‘this is a great thing, keep pushing on with it’; well, that’s the real inspiration.”

Joe says the change in the law is simple, and stresses the family would always have the final say.

“It’s just dead sensible and it makes organ donation the norm.

“What opportunity are you going to have in the course of your life to save seven lives and you can do that if you donate after your death,” said Joe.

“Think of that: the joy, the transforming effect it will have, not just for the people who are transplanted, but the wider family and the community.

“There is a massive feel-good factor around transplantation and you can see that in Ryan’s family.”

RTE is making a documentary about organ donation and Joe and Shane’s campaign, and this Friday the friends are due to appear on the flagship TV programme ‘The Late Late Show’.

“With all of this, what I needed to do was get doors open. I’m like Jerry Maguire – I’m good in the living room – so I’ve got the doors open with Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, and Edwin Poots, and the Irish political parties are following suit, and the reason people are following isn’t because I’m pushing it but because, when you look at it, it’s a very very good idea and increasingly the voices of objection are sounding very irrational.

“There are literally no voices of objection, so I think it’s all good. I can’t see any downsides. Anything that saves lives and transforms lives, well it’s got to be a good thing.”

If anyone knows the importance of organ donation it’s Ryan.

Four months post-transplant, he’s back home and about to start his rehab.

Ryan’s only complaint is that his trademark ginger curls are gone and his hair is now growing back straight!

Delighted to have met Joe, Ryan agrees that the change to the law regarding organ donation is a no-brainer.

“Waiting for a heart, it’s just one of those things you can’t imagine,” said Ryan.

“People need to donate and, because of me, family and friends have joined the organ donor register. People must always let their family know their wishes too, that’s so important.

“It’s heartbreaking to see people die waiting for a transplant, people who deserve life and lose it. What Joe is doing makes sense.”