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Sheffield kidney transplant patients celebrate 50 years of life-saving surgery

Event to celebrate 50 years since the first transplant at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. Twins John and Michael Thornton. Picture Scott Merrylees
Event to celebrate 50 years since the first transplant at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. Twins John and Michael Thornton. Picture Scott Merrylees

Dozens of people whose lives were saved by kidney transplants have come together to celebrate 50 years of the pioneering procedure in Sheffield.

Last week, around 40 patients came to Kenwood Hall Hotel to eat, drink and reminisce with the surgeons who looked after them.

Event to celebrate 50 years since the first transplant at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. Retired surgeon Andrew Raftery. Picture Scott Merrylees

Event to celebrate 50 years since the first transplant at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. Retired surgeon Andrew Raftery. Picture Scott Merrylees

The event was organised by retired surgeon Andrew Raftery, who wanted the event to show how full the lives of his patients continue to be, up to 40 years after their surgery.

But he also hoped the celebration could spur more people to put themselves on the donors’ register and tell their families of their wishes, so even more lives can be saved in the future.

Andrew - who started working in Sheffield in the 1980s - personally carried out around 750 kidney transplants, and oversaw around 1,000 in total throughout his career.

Speaking at Friday’s event, he said his career had been ‘very, very satisfying’.

Event to celebrate 50 years since the first transplant at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. Glendon Lewis with his wife Sharon. Picture Scott Merrylees

Event to celebrate 50 years since the first transplant at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. Glendon Lewis with his wife Sharon. Picture Scott Merrylees

He said: “I did general surgery as well but with transplant surgery you see them every four months for the rest of their lives. There end up being a really strong bond.

“They never complain and they are so grateful - I always just treated them like friends.”

Two of Mr Raftery’s longest-standing patients were identical twins Michael and John Thornton, both aged 59.

37 years ago John gave one of his kidneys to Michael, saving his life.

Event to celebrate 50 years since the first transplant at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. Glendon Lewis with his surgeon Ravi Pararajasingam. Picture Scott Merrylees

Event to celebrate 50 years since the first transplant at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. Glendon Lewis with his surgeon Ravi Pararajasingam. Picture Scott Merrylees

At the age of 20, Michael suffered complete renal failure, causing him to go temporarily blind as sky high blood pressure burst the vessels in his eye.

Fortunately - after three months of dialysis - John came forward and the pair have ‘never looked back since’.

“I can’t speak highly enough of him,” said Michael.

“It was an amazing thing to do. In 1981 it was a major operation.”

“If you can save someone’s life then you are going to do it, especially if it is your brother,” said John.

The twins both agreed with Mr Raftery’s observation about the bond between patient and doctor in transplant surgery.

“The surgeons were like second fathers to us,” said John.

“The reason we are here now is because of these pioneering people who gave their lives to it.”

As identical twins, Michael and John were a perfect match, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have a ‘walking donor’ for a brother.

Husband and wife Sharon and Glendon Lewis took part in the paired exchange scheme, which sees not-matching donated kidneys put into a pool in return for a matching kidney from a third party.

Sharon donated one of her kidneys into the pool and Glendon received one back from another donor, in an operation carried out by current Sheffield transplant surgeon, Mr Ravi.

This relatively recent scheme now produces around 20 live donors every year, increasing the number of transplants done in Sheffield to a record 81 last year.