‘Being competitive has helped me’

Richard Twose has just competed in the Transplant Games. Picture: Steve Reid (122892-433)
Richard Twose has just competed in the Transplant Games. Picture: Steve Reid (122892-433)

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There’s one medal missing from the glinting bundle of gold, silver and bronze proudly hanging in Richard Twose’s living room.

Among the athlete’s impressive collection of metal, you won’t find his most significant silver.

The medal was the first Richard received after recovering from a kidney and pancreas transplant.

It was won for an impressive 100m performance at the British Transplant Games and is now hopefully in the hands of his donor’s family.

‘I sent it through the hospital. I really didn’t know what they would think or if they would keep it, but it was something I had to do,’ says the Fareham runner.

‘I wanted to say to them ‘‘look, we won this’’.’

‘We’ is a word Richard uses a lot when talking about his sporting achievements. The athlete and transplant patient, who is also sight impaired, has clocked up plenty of victories in his sporting career. But he says the fact that he has achieved so much is down to a team – himself, his dog and his donor.

‘I often say ‘‘we did this’’, ‘‘we did that’’. That’s just how I feel about the person who donated these organs and gave me the chance to live and do the things I love. I think of him as the best friend that I never met.’

And then there is his other pal Bates. He came from Guide Dogs for the Blind and, as well as being remarkably good company, has allowed Richard to pull his life back together after a series of health ordeals.

‘He’s lovely, full of character and I don’t know what I would have done without him,’ says Richard, patting a boisterous but skilful and obedient Bates. ‘He’s given me the confidence and tenacity to get out there and do what I want to do.’

Last weekend the 35-year-old runner and his ‘team’ scored another medal at this year’s British Transplant Games at Medway.

Richard competed in the 800m at the annual tournament. And despite the fact that he was the only sight-impaired athlete and it was the first time he had competed at a longer distance, he came back with a silver medal.

The runner and six other members of the Portsmouth Transplant Games team have now qualified for next year’s World Transplant Games in South Africa.

It’s not bad for someone who only had a few months to live before his 2007 operation. But, typically for an athlete, Richard is concerned that he didn’t land the gold.

‘I am incredibly competitive,’ laughs the Fareham sportsman. ‘But I think that’s really helped me with all my health problems.’

Glasgow-born Richard was diagnosed with diabetes when he was two and was injecting himself with insulin by the time he was seven. Diabetes attacks the cells that produce insulin and if not managed properly can end up causing serious damage to the organs, as well as affecting things like sight.

Richard was on a strict diet when he was growing up, but still faced huge challenges while doing the sports he loved.

‘I’d sometimes collapse on the football pitch. But I wouldn’t let it stop me because I loved it too much. One of my report cards said ‘‘if Richard spent as much time on his education as he does on his sport he’d be a genius.’’

He was also spurred on by his parents and grandfather.

‘My dad used to say diabetes is part of you , you’re not part of it. And my papa (Richard’s grandfather) used to say ‘‘never quit’’.’

But when Richard reached his teens he found diabetes more difficult to deal with and stopped looking after himself properly.

‘A lot of young diabetics go through this, you kind of rebel and go into denial. I’d go out a lot and stopped paying so much attention to my diet.’

Then in his early 20s Richard suddenly lost his sight. The message of his grandfather, who had recently died, had been so valuable.

‘It went instantly so as you can imagine I was pretty depressed. I thought this is it, I can’t do any of the things I love. Then this blind guy Tommy MacNulty, a sportsman, came to see me because he’d heard about me and that changed my life.’

So Richard didn’t quit and two years late won silver and gold medals for the 100m and 200m at the British Blind Championships.

‘It was a fantastic moment. I phoned my mum and she was in tears,’ he says.

Richard had undergone several operations and could see contrast and movement but very little detail. He went on to compete in sailing and other sports, but a few years later was facing the fight of his life when he learned he had kidney failure. Dialysis left him exhausted and he went from 81 kilos to 64.

‘I was so ill and at one point I was told that without a transplant I only had a few months to live. Of course I had all the emotions again, you know ‘‘how am I going to get through this one?’’’

When a donor match was found, Richard received a phone call and was raced to Oxford for a risky operation.

There he met some other patients. ‘The hard thing is that they have to choose, but I was in the worst shape. I think about those people and hope they’re okay. People die every day waiting for transplants.’

He’s clear about the fear he felt, but also shows a sense of humour about the kidney and pancreas operation. ‘I call it bogof, buy one get one free,’ he laughs.

There has been a long recovery but Richard has studied for a degree and is a qualified fitness instructor. He now has about 16 medals to his name and is having a well-deserved break, enjoying the Paralympics.

He’s excited about the games and as a visually-impaired runner explains some of the challenges faced by athletes.

‘I rely on contrast on the track and movement of the athletes,’ says Richard, who chooses not to run with a guide.

‘The biggest problem for anyone is getting over the psychological barriers. As hard as you try, it’s impossible to completely trust that there’s nothing or nobody on the track in your way.’

Richard has tried to qualify for the Paralympics but didn’t make it through, although he competed in the 2009 World Transplant Games in Australia.

‘Those guys are incredible. Everyone knows that they’re doing something amazing but if you’ve tried to qualify you realise what fantastic athletes they are.’

At 35 he thinks it might be time to slow down a bit. But with his papa’s words still ringing in his ears he says: ‘I won’t give up easily. We’re already putting a plan together for Rio aren’t we Bates?’

BRITISH TRANSPLANT GAMES

The British Transplant Games, the brainchild of consultant transplant surgeon Maurice Slapak, first took place in Portsmouth in 1978.

About 100 participants came from all over Britain, as well as France and Greece, for the one-day event held at Castle Field in Southsea.

Over the past 30 years the games have become a four-day annual event for over 600 competitors and nearly 1000 supporters.

They have been staged in a number of cities including London, Newcastle, Cardiff, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Leeds.

Portsmouth has hosted the games on three occasions, in 1978, 1979 and 1984, and there are calls to bring them back to their home city.

The British event gave rise to the World Transplant Games as Maurice realised it could become a global tournament.

Members of the Portsmouth Transplant Games Team have qualified for the next world tournament and are looking for a new sponsor.

Information on the team is available on their Facebook page.

TRANSPLANTS

Three people on the organ donor waiting list die every day without receiving a transplant.

More than 3,900 transplants were carried out in the UK in 2011/12 and the number of people on the Organ Donor Register continues to increase.

But Sally Johnson, director of organ donation and transplantation at NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), says: ‘Things are moving in the right direction but we need to carry on making people aware of the difference they can make by signing up to the register.’

For more information, simply visit organdonation.nhs.uk or call (0300) 1232323.