When the McCartan family sat down to Christmas dinner they reflected on just how close they came to a double tragedy. In fact few families will have had to overcome such adversities to be together but that is what makes brothers in arms, John and Kevin McCartan so special.
Kevin is now 16 but was born prematurely at 24 weeks and weighed in at a mere 1.7 ounces, his family were told there was zero chance of survival. Luckily for the family but in particular his older brother John, Kevin fought and won that survival battle.
In particular, as 11 years later John developed bone marrow disease, a disease which nearly killed him. It was only cured with a transplant from Kevin.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” John told the Journal.
The Springtown family are certainly fighters.
Father Robert recalls how the first six months of Kevins life was spent in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
“He was too small for the incubators, they had to have a foil tray with a cling-film lid across the top. That was nothing compared to the three years Kevin spent in a hospital bed. Kevin was so small that his arm could pass through his granny’s wedding ring up to the shoulder.”
In truth Kevin only survived thanks to a drug trial. It was a drug trial that saved two lives.
John began getting ill when aged eight years old. It started with him vomiting in the mornings but escalated to the point where he could no longer attend school.
“I eventually started throwing up blood and that’s when we realised there was something seriously wrong.”
It was suspected John had Crones Disease but it was eventually discovered he had an immune deficiency.
The diagnosis of an ‘Ipex like syndrome.’ (Immune dysregulation, Polyendocrinopathy, Enteropathy, X-linked syndrome); That is the development of multiple autoimmune disorders.
“When I first went to Altnagelvin they transferred me immediately to Belfast who immediately transferred me to Newcastle,” said John. “The whole thing escalated pretty quick. I spent the next three years in hospital in a bubble (a sterile environment) as the risk of infection was so high, I was too sick for a transplant.”
John lived in that bubble until he was 15.
“Only people in my direct medical team or a few family visitors were allowed into the room but they had to scrub down after being checked for infections. I was never allowed more than two visitors at a time.”
Most teen males would spend that time practising FIFA on the playstation but John was too tired to do so.
“Im not really into computer games I was just far too sick. I would go on my computer for an hour but I wouldn’t really play games. The rest of the time I just felt too ill to do anything. Living in a bubble was just terrible.”
John’s entire family were tested for a possible donor, first his maternal aunties and uncles then his fathers nine brothers and sisters and finally Kevin was tested.
John remembers how the news was broke to him: “I remember the medical staff all coming into my room crying. They were really happy Kevin was a 100% match for me. I remember them telling me it was like winning the lotto six times. There is no other way to say it but I wouldn’t be here but for him.”
Asked was the operation painful, the quick witted John replied: “Not for me, but Kevin walked like a cowboy for a month after the surgery.”
Kevin had to donate twice as much bone marrow as was thought, so surgeons drilled holes in both his femur bones.
“That was pretty sore,” smiled Kevin “but it was worth it.”
John had, by his own admission become fairly acclimatised to a hospital environment at that stage.
“I had a line going into my heart and tubes everywhere so the operation was straight forward for me.”
Kevin said: “I was kind of nervous. As John was in hospital I hadn’t seen him in a while. When I found out I was a match I went to the hospital and, well he wasn’t looking too good, even at 11 years of age I knew I had to do it. It was for my brother and I hated him being sick.
“I stopped in my tracks when I went to see him, he was that sick.”
Kevin said: “We used to play football together all the time but then we had to talk to each other through a door way after he became ill.”
Kevin who has won three all Ireland basketball championships for St. Joseph’s recalls how he was “constantly worried about his brother” but didn’t realise the full extent of the illness.
The successful transplant operation was carried out in July 2007.
John said: “The operation brought our whole family together. Our sister Louise and parents Linda and Robert were all fantastic.”
Dad Robert recalls: “When you look back you wonder how you got through it all. It was a tough time certainly but we are all here and that is the main thing. You have to put your faith in the medical team or teams in our case.”
Kevin adds: “I get to see my brother now if he had not had the transplant I wouldn’t, that is the difference. It was great to get him back.”
So does the bone marrow bond between them distil the sibling rivally?
Kevin said: “Well there have been times when I say to John, ‘D’ye remember that day I saved your life?’ That usually wins any argument.”
Last week the brothers attended a Christmas party for children who had received an organ transplant.
John said: “It is about getting the word out for people to join the organ donor register. Donations are really needed, you never know when it’s going to be you who needs the help or support.”
Kevin agrees: “Today means everything, we’re celebrating John being here and how that helps everyone else but it is amazing to see what joy doctors can bring.
“When I look at all the younger children here running about and having fun, it is just amazing as things could have been so different for them all.”
The boys are thankful for all they have been given. Kevin volunteers with the Special Olympics Derry teams, coaching football and bowling. He hopes to become a teacher. John has returned to his studies at St. Columb’s College having missed his work and classmates for over three years.
“As I was ill I missed out on three years of events, occasions and time with my family and friends, I can now see about trying to make that time up. That is what Kevin did for me, he allowed me a second chance.”
To give someone else a second chance after you’re gone simply register as an organ donor at www.organdonation.nhs.uk One donor can save several lives.