Man proposes to woman who gave him life-saving kidney ‘as it was the least he could do’
Picture a proposal and romance, and rings come to mind – not a conversation about vital organs.
But when Craig Tichelaar asked Sadie to marry him in Naples in 2018, it was kidneys that prompted the talk of engagement.
“I’d never been fussed about getting married, so the proposal came as a total shock,” says Sadie, 43, a local authority senior manager.
“But Craig said that if I was willing to give up a kidney for him, the least he could do was marry me.”
It had all started with snoring. When the couple moved in together in 2010, Sadie realised Craig’s night-time noises were a problem.
“I said he might want to talk to his GP,” she recalls. “I had no idea it could be something serious.”
At first it didn’t seem to be. But diagnosed as having high blood pressure, Craig had months of investigations, ending up with a kidney biopsy in late 2010.
“That’s when we learnt he had IgA Nephropathy, a chronic kidney disease,” says Sadie. “It was incurable and would have a long-term impact on his health.
“The diagnosis was a bombshell – we were facing the fact that this would change his life.”
And her life too? “I didn’t think about that,” says Sadie. “My reaction was to think about him. What can I do to make him feel better?”
She went into fact-finding mode. She says: “Craig didn’t need immediate surgery, but we had to keep his blood pressure low and prevent illnesses that would put additional pressure on his kidneys.”
Apart from medication and a yearly check-up, for six years the couple were able to live largely normal lives.
Unfortunately, by 2016 his condition was progressing. “Craig began getting periods of incredibly painful gout, caused by the fact his kidneys were struggling to process a build-up of uric acid,” explains Sadie.
Craig recalls: “I was getting incredibly tired. I’d come home from work and collapse on the sofa, asleep for hours.”
Still, it came as a huge shock to them both when in March 2019 the couple were told that Craig had two options: a kidney transplant or dialysis.
“As soon as the appointment was over, Craig sent me a text and it was stark,” Sadie remembers. “This wasn’t a decision for five years’ time – he had to make it now. He’s Australian, so all his family were on the other side of the world. My response was clear and immediate – you can have one of mine.
“I loved him and he was ill. He needed a kidney and I had one spare. It just made sense.”
Craig says: “When I saw her reply, I was struck with amazement and guilt. Sadie is such a selfless person, I wasn’t surprised that she wanted to help. But to immediately offer without even looking into the possible risks to herself was overwhelming.”
The pair met for lunch that day. “He kept asking me, ‘are you sure?’,” Sadie remembers. “I said that I’d never been so certain of anything in my life. I can be pretty determined.”
She became even more so the following month. At an information event at the hospital, they saw the reality of dialysis. “It was terrifying,” she says. “Craig would either be at the unit three times a week or having dialysis at home. That thought was so much worse than me having to undergo an operation.”
Sadly, because they had different blood types, Sadie couldn’t be a direct donor but then they learned about the Kidney Sharing Scheme. “It’s a bit like a kidney swap-shop based on blood, tissue and antibody tests,” says Sadie. “A clever algorithm matches donors and recipients four times a year in a ‘matching run’.
Months of physical and psychological testing followed. Sadie learnt that after the operation her remaining kidney would increase in size to compensate. Donating would mean a slightly higher chance of increased blood pressure, but the risk of developing significant kidney disease would be very low. And it wouldn’t alter her life expectancy.
Sadie was approved for the scheme and everything was going to plan. “Then we weren’t matched,” says Sadie. “There is such a careful algorithm and we hadn’t made it. I was devastated.”
Following their wedding in November 2018, there was another failed matching run in February 2019.
“By then Craig had reached a point of constant exhaustion,” she says. “I was so worried about him, and desperate to donate so I could help. Then finally, in May 2019, we were matched. I’ve never been so relieved in my life.”
On July 10, 2019, they both checked into hospital. Sadie’s operation was first. “I cried as I said goodbye to Craig, but not from fear,” she says. “It was the emotion of the day finally being here.”
Seven hours later, she was in recovery, and Craig was able to see her before his own operation. “That was the worst moment for me,” he admits. “I could see her in pain and discomfort, suffering just for me. I felt a lot of guilt.”
Their recovery at home took many months. “Physically it was hard,” explains Sadie. “I’d never had an operation before. So while Craig’s energy levels went up, mine crashed. Hardly surprising when he had three kidneys and I only had one.”
Craig will need anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life, and Sadie still has occasional discomfort at the site of the operation, but with each leap forward in his health, Sadie is even happier with her decision.
Due to strict confidentiality, they will never know who gave a kidney to Craig, or where Sadie’s went, but Craig will always know who gave him his health back.
“Sadie is the most amazing, selfless person I’ve ever met. Now we can live life again, together, and it’s all because of her.”