A Liver of Life

Anne Smith is no ordinary person.

A three-time transplant recipient, multiple World Transplant Games medal-winner and 13-time foster parent (along with five children of her own), she is the epitome of both resilience and humility in equal measure.

‘After my first operation one of the transplant coordinators asked me would I be interested in taking part in the World Transplant Games. At first I thought “Is she mad?”, but two years down the road when I was fit enough I decided to go to the 1995 Games in Manchester,’ says Anne, as she sips a mid-afternoon tea while looking after grandson Daly (she never was one to refuse a helping hand).

Working as a member of the household staff in Beaumount Hospital, Anne had been required to take a series of Hepatitis B injections as a precautionary measure. After reacting badly to the vaccinations she underwent a number of tests which eventually revealed underlying auto-immune disease that she was suffering from.

An internal bleed caused by a routine biopsy meant that she was kept in hospital for six months, and eventually necessitated her going under the knife for a liver transplant in St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1993. However, just two years later she had recovered sufficiently to take part in both the badminton and 3K walk competitions at the Games.

Anne with grandson Daly in her home in Baldoyle, north Dublin
Anne with grandson Daly in her home in Baldoyle, north Dublin

‘Just before they started, I was meant to come in to hospital for a biopsy on the Friday and leave the next day, but the doctor came into me on Saturday and told me I was very ill,’ says Anne. ‘As it transpired I was suffering from chronic liver rejection at the time, although it hadn’t been diagnosed. I told him that the Games weren’t just a little holiday for me, they meant a lot in my life.’

Little did the medical staff of St. Vincent’s know, Anne had decided to dedicate any medals she would win to the memory of her donor (a young man, as it turned out) and his family. As she sees it, her gold medal in the badminton and bronze in the walking race were in recognition of their sacrifice.

‘I was conflicted about knowing that for me to live and have my transplant, someone was going to have to die,’ says an emotional Anne, a tear coming to her eye. ’I really had a terrible time dealing with that aspect of it. In the end I thought “if they were special enough to give up their organs, well who was I to refuse them”.’

‘A couple of years after my first transplant I went off to Disneyland, and I went on every ride in the place- for my donor, not me. They would’ve only been 18 or 19 at the time. I also had the intention of giving the world medals I’d won to the family. Even to this day I feel an incredible sense of gratitude towards them.’

A selection of the medals Anne has won from competitions around the world
A selection of the medals Anne has won from competitions around the world

Having fought long and hard to recover a normal existence, Anne was told in 2002 that she’d need another liver transplant, along with a new kidney. That year she became part of a select group of people to have two transplants in the one day.

‘I was devastated when I found out I had to have another transplant. The second time was an easier operation for me, but a harder road back. They let me out for Christmas but I got total kidney failure and was on a life support machine for a couple of weeks after. I had to learn to walk all over again.’

Truly a woman of the world, Anne’s enduring positivity knows no bounds. Before her transplant ordeals, she had dedicated a large part of her life to foster 13 new born babies in four years.

‘We started fostering new babies coming out of the hospital from two days. We had them for anything up to two months, and even had one until 10 months. I felt that they deserved a good start in life the same as my own children got.

‘I was just delighted that they could get love and affection from a foster family, which I personally felt was the best thing.’

Whereas others would rue the hand life had dealt them having contributed so much good to society, Anne has no such feelings of lament.

‘I was never bitter over what happened to me. I never said “why me” or anything like that, it wasn’t something you could just give back as such so I just had to get on with it and try and make the most of things. I have a lovely family and a brilliant husband and I’ve had a great life so far, I really couldn’t ask for any more.’

Photos by Ciaran D’Arcy.

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