Giving the gift of life wasn’t enough for firefighter Stu Vince. He also took on a huge physical challenge to encourage others to do the same.
The Cosham firefighter had already selflessly come to the aid of family friend Michael Paxman, 20, who desperately needed a kidney.
But then Stu, 35, joined fellow firefighter Phil Jackson, 45, in an attempt to run from Portsmouth to Land’s End, Cornwall in 11 days – an average of a 26-mile marathon a day.
The aim was to get more people signed up on the organ donor register.
It was a tough challenge, which saw them running up hills in the sweltering heat and then cycling back home in pouring rain.
Stu says: ‘The support we had on the route was key to our success.
‘They really helped us carry on and were brilliant.
‘Doing the challenge was a strange feeling. You would feel really chuffed that you had finished a day and talk about it.
‘Then in the morning that would be flipped entirely on its head and we had to get our heads around the fact we’d have to do it all over again.’
He adds: ‘It was something we dealt with every day we were away.
‘I think 50 per cent of the challenge was about mental strength and on about day six I lost it.’
The pair, both from Blue Watch at Cosham fire station, started their challenge on May 20, running from Queen Alexandra Hospital, Cosham, to Southampton General Hospital.
Each day the pals would run from fire station to fire station, where they would be put up for the night.
As their challenge hotted up, so did the weather.
The country was gripped by a heatwave, which made running conditions difficult for the firefighters.
‘It was about 30 degrees and we were in Dartmoor on day six,’ remembers Stu.
‘For me that day was hazy.
‘In my head I thought I was doing fine, but apparently I was stumbling and falling all over the place.
‘I was forced to stop and Phil went on alone.
‘It was a devastating feeling, but I had to stop otherwise I would not have done the other days.’
Phil experienced the pain of blistered feet and damaged tendons.
He says: ‘The routes we were taking wouldn’t usually be used for a marathon because of the hills.
‘This caused me problems with my tendons and by day nine I was in a lot of pain.’
Phil had to visit a minor injuries unit in Falmouth and was forced to withdraw from running or walking that day.
He says: ‘You can’t describe the pain on some of the days, but what gets you through is the reason why you’re doing it.
‘There were a lot of people supporting us and we didn’t want to let them, or ourselves, down.
‘The messages from people we got along the way – and are still getting – have been incredible.
‘We’ve had people tell us they have been motivated to do things and, most importantly, to sign the register.
He adds: ‘I know of people that have put their name on the register because of us and that is a phenomenal feeling.’
News of their epic challenge travelled far and wide. Messages of support came from Canada and even Australia.
Along the journey the pair estimate their challenge has added another 1,000 people to the donor register.
And in the process they have raised £6,000 in sponsorship money, which will be split between QA and Southampton.
Stu says: ‘When we first came up with this idea we thought we would get support from the Portsmouth area, but we had no idea we would get coverage from media outside of Hampshire.
‘I wanted to know how far I could push my body physically and prove to myself I could do it.
‘It also opened our eyes to the kindness and humanity of people.
‘All the fire stations put us up, fed us and really looked after us along the way.
‘But for us the key thing is getting those names added on to the register because there are lives that can be saved as a result.
‘The money has always been an extra for us, and it’s brilliant people have given so generously.’
Stu and Phil had originally planned to row back from Penzance along the coast to Gunwharf Quays.
But after day two, heavy rainfall and high winds meant the pair had to rethink things.
Through a combination of more running and cycling, the friends returned to Portsmouth where they were greeted by a crowd of friends, family and well-wishers.
Looking ahead, the firefighters are determined to carry on adding names to the organ donor register.
Stu says: ‘We don’t want this to stop here. We want to keep the momentum going and do something smaller next year.
‘Plus in 2014 we are thinking of cycling to the most northerly, southerly, easterly and westerly fire stations in the country.
‘We have worked out that is around 2,200 miles and we want to do it in 22 days. But before then we want to set up something smaller, such as a cycle ride from Portsmouth to Southampton.’
· For more details, visit thebigdonorchallenge.co.uk
THE GREATEST GIFT OF ALL
It all started when Stuart Vince gave the gift of life by donating a kidney to family friend Michael Paxman.
Michael, 20, of Soberton, started developing problems with his kidneys when he was ﬁve years old.
He had to wait two years before he could go on the donor list, and when he did he found out no family members were a match.
This prompted firefighter Stu to get tested. When it showed he was compatible, he did not hesitate to donate his kidney.
The process opened Stu’s eyes to the lack of donors on the register and he embarked on a physical challenge to raise awareness.
Michael says: ‘What Stu and Phil have done is incomprehensible. It’s just fantastic, really inspiring.
‘It has highlighted to so many people about how important it is to sign the organ donor register.’
Michael cycled twice with the firefighters and also ran part of the way – something he would never have been able to do without Stu’s kind-hearted donation.
‘I couldn’t have done anything like that before I had the transplant,’ he explains.
‘That’s the most exercise I’ve done in about five years. And if other people can be helped in this way, then it’s brilliant.’
SIGN THE REGISTER
NHS Blood and Transplant is in charge of getting more people signed up to the organ donor register and blood donation.
According to NHSBT, in Portsmouth there are 22 people in need of a transplant. Seventeen of these need a kidney, two need a lung transplant, while the rest need a liver, a heart and a pancreas transplant.
Since 2008, eight people have died in Portsmouth while they waited for a suitable donor. The NHS has praised the efforts of firefighters Stu Vince and Phil Jackson to raise awareness of the donor register.
Trish Collins, team manager for organ donation at NHSBT, says: ‘Stu and Phil have shown incredible dedication.
‘On average three people die every day due to a lack of suitable organs. We need more people to sign the organ donor register and discuss their wishes with their friends and family so that more lives can be saved.’
In the past four years, 43 people have benefited from an organ donation in Portsmouth.· For more information, go to nhsbt.nhs.uk