Dubai: Life was a breeze for American teen Umair M Harleston until a couple of years ago, as he was looking forward to college life. But then tragedy struck.
During his final year in high school, the then 17-year old student of International School of Creative Science, Al Muweilah Sharjah, began having headaches and blurred vision. Thinking it was an ophthalmology problem, the family took him to an eye specialist.
“The examination revealed that Umair’s eyes were getting damaged due to high blood pressure. There was a change to his optic nerve. Further examination revealed that blood pressure had damaged his kidneys. Their function had dropped to just 8 per cent. We had to consult the nephrologists at the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi to begin dialysis,” Harleston’s mother, Safwa Abdul Aziz, 45, told Gulf News.
Doctors first began medical treatment to try and manage Harleston’s blood pressure, hoping it would allow his kidneys to recover. Due to the advanced stage of his disease, he had to undergoing dialysis three times a week.
The unfortunate chain of events turned Harleston’s life inside out. “I was always so athletic, playing basketball, working out regularly, I had no idea I could have a kidney condition. But once the diagnosis was done, I had to undergo dialysis and had to miss school so many times. But my school was very cooperative and teachers and friends worked closely to help me catch up with class notes. I was determined to finish high school with flying colours,” Harelston said. “Only through his visit for eye treatment was Umair’s extreme blood pressure diagnosed. Once it was discovered, his kidney disease was quite advanced, and we realised very quickly that Umair would need a kidney transplant to fully recover,” explained Dr Nizar Attallah, a transplant nephrologist at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.
Abdul Aziz shared her own shock at her son’s diagnosis. “When doctors first told me about Umair’s condition it was devastating, I was in shock. It is very terrifying for a mother not to know how to help her child.”
It was then that the mother took the extreme step — literally donating a part of herself to save her son. “I resolved then and there that I would donate one of my kidneys to Umair, I think it’s something that any mother would do if they are able. We were blessed that I was able to do this. I was confident I would be a match as donor for my son, I’ve met parents that weren’t so lucky, it really brings home the importance of organ donation,” said the emotionally overwhelmed mother.
After almost a year of dialysis, the transplant was carried out on May 29, 2019 at the Cleveland Clinic, Abu Dhabi. The family had to wait for Harleston to stabilise before sharing the story.
After a detailed evaluation by Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi’s multidisciplinary transplant team, Abdul Aziz was confirmed as a tissue match for her son and then after several tests, coordination with the transplant team, counsellors and doctors the transplant happened on May 21, 2019.
Harleston made a remarkable recovery. Abdul Aziz recalled: “As a donor I took a longer time to recover, whereas Umair was able to stand up the next day and was discharged from hospital in six days. Within a week he could walk around and it was such a relief to see the kidney functioning properly. My son was not sick any more and he no longer required dialysis. He started on immuno-suppressants but it was a miracle that in a little over a month on June 29, 2019, Umair actually walked on his two feet to take the stage and talk about his journey in front of a packed auditorium at his graduation ceremony. It was at the request of his school principal who wanted Umair to share his inspiring story. It was an eye-opening, life-altering journey that was shared to a standing ovation.”
Abdul Aziz explained why her son’s graduation ceremony meant so much to her. “Umair’s illness meant he was forced to miss a great deal of school and was unable to take his final exams. However, after his recovery from the transplant, he was able to join his friends and actually walk to the stage and deliver this speech.”
It is a memory he and his family treasure as a marker of his recovery.
Energetic and back to action
Harelston, who plans to move to the US soon to join university and plans to graduate in medicine, feels the surgery has completely changed his life. “I feel great. Before the surgery I was very lethargic, I wouldn’t want to leave my bed I was sleeping all day, I didn’t eat. Immediately after the surgery, I was feeling much better, much more energetic,” he said.
He added: “When you get diagnosed with something like this it’s all about mindset. From the beginning I decided this is not going to change anything in me or around me. I’ve started working out at the gym and I’m back to playing basketball."
What to expect from an organ transplant?
Dr Attallah emphasised the importance of organ donation and how live donations among direct blood relatives provide the greatest chance of a perfect tissue match. “As per the UAE federal health law, live organ donations are permitted among relatives even if the relative is a fourth degree one. Usually there is a high chance of a tissue match in a first degree relative like in this case it was Safwa, Umair’s mother. When a patient comes in for a transplant our team evaluates both the donor and the recipient to assess it they are psychologically and medically ready for the surgery.”
Dr Attallah added that it was advisable for all kidney patient on dialysis to go in for a transplant. “We encourage all dialysis patients to go in for a transplant if a tissue-matched organ is found for a better quality of life. The survival of an organ graft is up to 17 years now. In many cases, people have been able to live with a transplanted organ up to 30 years and there is a high chance of carrying out a second transplant later. We have had cases where patients have undergone 2-3 organ transplants in their lifetime.”