We’re Inspired By – John Nellist
John Nellist’s life was turned upside down in 2011 when he was told that he needed a kidney transplant to survive. Now he’s aiming to be an Ironman again.
John’s brother-in-law saved his life by donating a kidney and are now training partners again.
I did Ironman UK in June 2011 in a personal best of 14 hours 47 minutes, which I was really chuffed with. I felt really good. I had entered my first triathlon in 1999, and I remember it well: I could barely swim two strokes of front crawl, and my bike was a Raleigh Banana with the saddle on the top tube due to its size and my lack of leg length. I wore Speedos for the swim, and had a battle to put on my vest in transition. It must have been a right sight. However, I loved it and caught the triathlon bug.
I did my first Ironman in 2005, just after I’d returned from my honeymoon. Two weeks in the Maldives may not have been the best preparation – the only training I could do was swimming – but I finished in 15 hours 52 minutes. After that I couldn’t get enough, and at one point I was competing in 13 races a year, from sprints to Half Ironmans.
I turned 40 in December 2011, and two days later I went to collect the results of a blood test. I knew that I had protein in my water, but I had no idea how bad it was – I had put it down to drinking a lot of protein shakes while I trained.
The doctor asked me to sit down, and told me that I had kidney failure. I was down to 16 per cent of normal function and I needed a transplant. I later found out that when I did the Ironman my kidney function had been just 24 per cent. That night, I searched the internet for information on kidney failure – a big mistake. It convinced me I was going to die in the near future.
Before the diagnosis, I had been having tests every six months since I’d changed doctor in 2003, because of the protein in my urine. I had a biopsy in 2005 and they said there was slight damage to my kidneys but that it was nothing to worry about and wouldn’t affect me until I was 80. As it turned out, I got halfway there.
In the family we do a Secret Santa, so I sent a text out to everyone saying: “If anybody gets me, I’ll have a new kidney.” That’s how I broke the news to them. My brother-in-law Andy, who I’d done Ironman UK with just six months previously, came back straight away and said “I’ll give you one”. He was fantastic.
John post transplant operation, has since gone on to make a full recovery.
Andy spent six months being prodded and poked, and had all sorts of blood tests. I was taking 13 tablets a day, and in May I went to hospital to have a catheter fitted to my stomach so I could start dialysis. I was allowed to pick what type of dialysis I wanted, and I chose to have it at home overnight so it didn’t encroach on my personal life too much. I had only had the tube fitted for three weeks before I got an infection, so I had that tube taken out under general anaesthetic and another one put in on the other side.
That one lasted a couple of months. Normally the tube should be in your pelvic area, but this one had moved up to near my heart. I had keyhole surgery to correct it, but that didn’t work so they ended up putting a haemodialysis line in my neck and out of my chest. I had to go in for haemodialysis three times a week, which wasn’t pleasant. Then I was booked in for a transplant on
Andy and I went into hospital together, and he was first to be taken up to have his kidney removed. When it was my turn, I was wheeled past his recovery room on the way to the theatre. As I went past, I got the nurse to stop. “Andy, I’ve changed my mind now,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.” He replied with some sign language.
I got the new kidney and straight away I started feeling much better. Andy, however, went from feeling perfectly fit to feeling bad. He was out of hospital within two days, and I came out after six. It was an amazing thing he did.
Three weeks later, I started training with some light cycling in the gym; I wasn’t going to let it get the better of me. I then progressed to cycling the 15 miles to work, and I now cycle to work and back twice a week. I’ve started doing some stretching too, and have built up to some core stability work. I hope to do the time trial and road race at the British Transplant Games in August 2013. For my first triathlon back I want to do the sprint distance Scissett Triathlon this June; that’s my aim for healing and getting fit.
I’m getting there slowly – I did a bleep test in December and got to level nine. I’m a policeman and, who knows, I may compete in the Olympic-distance triathlon at the World Police and Fire Games in Belfast this August. It feels like a long journey from that first triathlon at Ilkley, on my Raleigh Banana.
John is now back on the bike and working towards completing another Ironman in the next few years.
Reading the story of Diccon Driver’s battle with kidney disease in Triathlon Plus (March 2012) helped inspire me to keep going, and my doctors are right behind my triathlon and fitness plans. They said it will help, because steady exercise will get more blood flowing. The new kidney is in my groin rather than in the usual spot, so it’s linked directly to the main artery. This means that when I train I get more blood volume going through the kidney, and it cleans my blood more efficiently. I go for tests every two weeks, and my kidney function is now up to 70% of normal levels for someone with two kidneys.
My wife Michelle has been fantastic – she’s chuffed that I’m making such a good recovery but she does tell me to take it easy. My two children, Martha and Billy, have also been amazing. I’ve done a couple of talks for the transplant team to publicise donor cards, because I’ve gone from being fit all my life to being dragged down by kidney disease, and I’ve brought myself back up again.
It would be great to finish a full Ironman again, but that won’t be for the next couple of years. I’ll have to sweet- talk my wife as she’s not too happy about the idea, but she will come round to my way of thinking eventually…
on Sunday, January 20th, 2013 at 5:30 am under Latest Issue, Magazine.
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Tags: Inspired, Triathlon Plus Magazine