Brothers recall organ transplant drama

Bruce Findlay and big brother Brian. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Bruce Findlay and big brother Brian. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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As they sit together on the couch sharing jokes and drinking coffee, you would never imagine that just under five years ago the two brothers were waking up dazed and confused after a life-saving six-hour operation.

The two had grown up together and even entered the music business together – opening the first in a string of successful record shops when they lived in Falkirk in the 1960s – but the events of July 2010 were to take their relationship to an even deeper level.

It was during that long summer that Bruce Findlay, the former manager of Simple Minds, donated his kidney to big brother Brian in a gruelling transplant operation at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary following hundreds of tests in the preceding months to ensure he was a suitable match.

Now, five years on, the brothers are still very much alive and kicking – and determined to raise awareness of organ donation and the gift of life it offers those suffering from terminal conditions.

And sitting side by side in Brian’s spacious Blackhall flat, the only hint of the trauma that took place is in the topic of conversation.

Brian, 78, was placed on the transplant list in 2008 after doctors warned his kidney was deteriorating at a dangerous rate.

In the months leading up to his successful transplant, he was forced to undergo peritoneal dialysis – an uncomfortable process of removing waste products from the blood through a catheter when the kidneys are no longer capable of doing the job.

But when he approached his younger brother Bruce for help, the music mogul jumped at the chance to donate one of his own kidneys and save his sibling’s life.

“I was serious, but very light-hearted and upbeat about it,” says 71-year-old Bruce, who lives in the West End. “A year later Brian said, ‘Actually, I’m definitely going to need it – did you mean it?’ I said, ‘Of course I meant it – you’re my brother. It’s a no-brainer.’”

The pair had always had a good relationship as adults, launching their iconic record store chain a decade before Bruce set up his own record label, Zoom, and took on unsigned Glasgow band Simple Minds in 1978.

But consenting to the operation was only the beginning of a long journey of tests, hospital visits and psychological examinations.

“They checked my heart and lungs and my liver – they put me through a lot of tests,” Bruce says.

“I thought the real bummer would be that I’m probably not fit enough. But the more tests I passed, the more positive I felt about doing it.

“The other tests were psychological. They took me out of earshot of my brother and said that I could pull out at any time. Even on the day of the operation, they said I could pull out – and that other people had.

“They hinted at emotional blackmail – did he force me or coerce me? I used to get really offended by that.

“But I went through all the tests and it proved I was fit enough. I was so chuffed. I’ve abused myself over the course of my life – I’ve lived a normal life, and I was in the music business.”

On July 27, 2010, the two brothers went under the knife, and just six hours later the painful ordeal was over – or so they thought.

Brian, who ran The Deacon House Cafe just off the Royal Mile before retiring last year, says: “I recovered more quickly than Bruce did. The wound that he had as a result of the transplant got infected and he had to undergo treatment for three months, changing the dressing on the wound.

“The effect of kidney failure is slow, and afterwards you feel about 50 per cent what you felt before because of the effect of the operation. But the immediate result was that, chemically at least, all my rates were normal.”

Bruce adds: “I came round, and of course you’re out of your skull on morphine. The doctor came and spoke to me and was saying, ‘How are you feeling?’ I was like, ‘I’m feeling great!’

“I asked how Brian was and they said, ‘Well, he’s just woke up and he is peeing for Britain.’ That meant it was working. Apparently, it works right away or it doesn’t at all.

“Sharing the ward we had a lot of laughs, and I do think that made a difference, because it’s not very comfortable and it’s not very dignified. It helps to have a sense of humour.

“But the best thing about hospital is leaving hospital. We joke about it but it was a lot to go through. There’s a sense of relief in a way that it worked – imagine if it had gone wrong.”

Six months later doctors feared Brian’s new kidney could be failing, and were seriously considering putting him back on the transplant list but, happily, his condition soon stabilised.

Now the retired businessman relies on a cocktail of pills to prevent his body from rejecting his brother’s organ.

And with as many as 20 tablets to swallow a day – a handful first thing in the morning, again later on in the morning, and then another handful with dinner and last thing at night – the routine of living with his condition is something he admits he initially found hard to stomach.

“I’ve good days and bad days,” he says. “You’ve really got to follow the rules. If you follow the rules, you won’t go very far wrong.”

And Bruce – who brushes aside any suggestion that what he did was heroic – said he and his brother were determined to raise awareness of organ donation in Scotland.

“I don’t feel brave, and I’m a show-off,” he says. “I’m not religious, but to me it’s miraculous that we can do these things. It’s amazing.

“I think an awful lot of people are unaware of being a donor. Two people a day in Scotland die of kidney failure while they are waiting for a transplant and unable to get one. Everybody can get a donor card – you don’t have to donate while you are 
alive.

“If we can encourage people to think about it and become a donor then that makes [telling the story] worthwhile.”