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Connected by a kidney

When rhythmic gymnast Katherine was facing end-stage renal failure, a stranger jumped at the chance to help

By Fleur Guthrie
They live in the same city, have the same long hair, share the same name – and now a kidney.
Just a year ago, Catherine West and Katherine Paton were strangers, but now they share a remarkable bond after Catherine generously donated her kidney to Katherine and saved her life.
In fact, they tell the Weekly they've skipped any awkwardness that new friendships often go through.
"We've gone straight to a really deep place of honest conversation and connection," says Catherine, from her home in West Auckland.
"We'll go from comparing our gnarly scars from the surgery to sharing how strong pain medication constipates you," she smiles.
Katherine (left) with her new donor bestie Catherine
The pair first met on social media when Catherine bought some earrings from Katherine's online jewellery business Kooky Boutique NZ. Then when following her Instagram page, she saw a post where Katherine shared about being in renal failure.
"So I sent a message saying, 'I've been trying to get rid of my kidney for ages. You can have mine!'" recalls Catherine.
"I had previously been tested and lined up to altruistically donate [give to a stranger] while living in England. Then I found out my grandma was terminally ill, so my husband and I made the decision to return to New Zealand, meaning I couldn't donate."
For Katherine, receiving such an offer was touching, but she never got her hopes up. As a former national representative rhythmic gymnast who was born with a genetic kidney issue, the 28-year-old had become used to being told that a potential donor didn't match.
Mum Sandra donated her kidney to teen Katherine
She had received her first kidney as a young teen from her mum Sandra. Sadly, that failed a few years later. Katherine bravely struggled on, competing at an international level in her sport, while her kidney function progressively got worse.
In 2018, when Katherine was competing in gymnastics events all over the world, she had to get boxes of dialysis fluid jetted to her destinations, so they would be waiting for her at the Kiwi team's hotel on arrival.
Yet despite her condition, she still managed to almost reach selection for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
"To stay alive, I needed to do manual peritoneal dialysis four times a day at home, to flush the toxins from my kidneys," she explains.
Competing for NZ while undergoing daily dialysis
"Without dialysis, I'd only live two weeks. I was put back on the kidney donor waiting list several years ago, but a donor was tricky to find because of my prior transplant, which affected my antibodies. So I required an even more perfect match than normal."
The Auckland-based athlete and vet nurse did everything in her power to find a donor, including advertising on her Facebook page and even putting a sign on her car.
"I was driving from Howick to the North Shore for gym training six days a week, so I thought I might as well make the most of the mileage," tells Katherine. "The sign read: 'I need a kidney donor, blood type B or O. Please consider being tested. You could save my life.'
"Sometimes I would look over and see people reading it and I'd give an awkward wave, like, 'Hi!' Around 15 people randomly contacted me saying they'd get tested."
Seven years went by and hopes were fading, until she got Catherine's message out of the blue.
The stars aligned and Catherine, a nanny, proved a match. After exhaustive physical and psychological testing, the transplant went ahead in February.
"We only met for the first time in person at a psych appointment two weeks before the surgery," remembers Katherine.
The pair recovering in hospital together post-surgery. "We'll go from comparing our gnarly scars from the surgery to sharing how strong pain medication constipates you"
"There we were, sitting next to each other in the waiting room, not even realising who the other one was until the doctor called out, 'Catherine and Katherine, please.'"
Catherine's first exposure to kidney donation came while working in a camp which hosted Kidney Kids (children living with kidney disease) and their families each year.
"It planted a seed in my mind," Catherine reveals. "I've donated blood and I've donated my eggs so infertile couples can have a baby, so donating a kidney was always in the plan too," says the selfless 31-year-old. "Giving where I can has always been my outlook on life. At 20, I applied to donate a kidney altruistically, but I was turned away and told I was too young."
However, she downplays her generosity, saying the real hero is Katherine. "Because Katherine is an amazingly positive person, she makes it sound like what she's had to live through isn't that bad.
"But her life sucked and so much of it was dedicated to having dialysis. She hadn't used her bladder to pee in seven years and could only drink 850mls of water a day.
"Plus there were foods she couldn't eat because they could make her really sick."
Chimes in Katherine, "I hadn't eaten chocolate in seven years and I'd never tasted a hot cross bun until this Easter! But now I've had chocolate every single day since my op! But seriously, Catherine's extraordinary gift has been life-changing. I feel I can do anything now."
Over 450 people in Aotearoa are waiting for a kidney transplant. For more info, visit kidney.health.nz

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