Real Life: Staying Well Through Illness

Fiona O’Donnell explains how she stayed healthy and well while waiting on a kidney transplant – and the answer may surprise you

In 2017 Fiona O’Donnell had a kidney transplant, donated by her best friend, Grainne and since then has worked to get back to triathlon fitness. If you’ve ever felt yourself lacking motivation, then this is the article for you!

Fiona’s story

I’m not lying when I say that FOMO got me through six months of chemotherapy, nine months of dialysis and two years of waiting for a kidney transplant. I am a triathlete, a marathon runner and an equestrian. I’m also a mum of three very active kids and a successful health and fitness professional so being sick really wasn’t something I had time for. As my renal failure progressed, I went from training twice a day to some days sleeping on the couch for up to five hours at a time. The kids would go to school at 8.30am and I would close my eyes for ’10 minutes’ after breakfast, waking at 1pm having missed client calls and coffee dates. Some were understanding, others not so much.

My inability to stay active really impacted my mood. Any runner in the world will know how itchy you get when you have missed a session and I was missing them all. My social life was also tied in with sport and missing my sessions meant that I was missing time with my friends. I knew it was time to shift the goal posts but the FOMO was killing me. I wanted to spend time with my friends but I knew that I had to switch my focus from training for fitness to exercising for health.

There were three elements for me to consider. I wanted to feel like I wasn’t missing out on time with my friends (there’s the FOMO). It was important to me that I maintained a healthy amount of cardiovascular fitness without overdoing it. Finally, I really needed to feel like my life was normal. For my mental and emotional health, I had to feel a sense of achievement and accomplishment to counteract the draining and exhausting symptoms of end stage renal failure.

Taking control

We decided as a group to start swim lessons. It was daunting for all of us. But for me, it was a way to get gentle exercise, spend time with my besties and set a challenge that I really had to work on. I was afraid to put my face in the water. I was terrified of swimming in the deep end of the pool. But I knew there was no way I could watch my friends have all the fun while I slept on the couch feeling sorry for myself. Every week, we showed up to lessons. We laughed and screeched in between swim sets and took away our homework, determined to improve. We practiced on Tuesdays and Thursdays and little by little, our group of mermaids became fully fledged front crawlers.

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I can't say that I have struggled with mental health issues. I have certainly had days, weeks and even months in my life when I was going through periods of high stress and life just didn't feel as great as it should. I have struggled to feel joy. But I have always been lucky enough to be surrounded by good friends and family who have just been there. . . . 💥I have been lucky enough to have the attitude that without the lows, the highs just wouldn't feel as good as they do and really believe it – an eternal (if somewhat foolish) optimist. . . 💥I was brought up in a family where I was taught resilience, strength, communication and love – big love for those around me and myself. Maybe if these things were shared more on social platforms, people might realise that loving yourself is OK. It doesn't have to be a major revelation or a huge step – you just have to mean it. . . 💥I dont have the perfect body – but hey, not even Barbie does (can she even close a shirt button with those boobs). I love my body, lumps, bumps, cellulite, scars and extra kidney. I love my broad shoulders and strong jaw. I love my ability to get up no matter how many times I'm down (my grandfather was a boxer…its in the blood). ….and you know what I really dont take on board – other people. Other people will always have an opinion, but the only one that matters is yours. . 💥How we look is important to us. I know this – I like to look nice. But I also dont base my entire self worth on it. I value my kindness, my loyalty, my ability to love. I love that I love to teach and it surprises me that I have the patience to do it. Theres lots more I have learned to love and value about myself whilst still being able to identify areas in which I have work to do (there are quite a few). . 💥Can you try this as an exercise. Think of things you value about yourself. Write them down and add to that list EVERY DAY. Offer yourself one kind word and see how it feels. . . #bekind #knowyourworth #healthblogger #mentalhealth #loveyourbody #mentalhealthawareness2019 #bebodykind

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What followed was nothing short of miraculous. While on dialysis, I teamed up with my friends and did the swim segment of the Schull triathlon. I came out of the water feeling like I was ready for the Olympics. I was not “that girl on dialysis”, I was just me. My sense of self worth sky rocketed. Not because I could swim, but because I had tried. I didn’t sit back and allow illness to happen to me. I was living and trying and I was not giving up on myself. At this point I should point out that I slept for about 24 hours after the event, but I was elated.

Looking back at that time, I can say with certainty that having my tribe around me was what kept my mindset positive. Initially, it felt pointless to train. If I couldn’t be at my fittest, what was the point, right? But, with gentle nudges from my friends, movement and maintenance of my cardiovascular health became my priority. I showed up to all the training sessions to support others and soak up the atmosphere. It made me feel like I was still involved despite the lack of training. During that time, I was forced to focus on my swim technique and conquer my fear of the water rather than my swim fitness. That meant that once I was ready to train again after my transplant, I had a solid technique and was able to develop my fitness without fear of injury.

Looking back

I am nearly two years post transplant now. When I look back at that time, the words that come to mind are resilience, support and of course FOMO. Throughout that period, we laughed so much. I never wanted to miss a moment of that. It allowed me to focus my energy on the positive elements of my day-to-day, rather than to dwell on my health. I am grateful every day for the friends I had around me and the experiences we shared. Gratitude is the greatest gift you can give yourself. I am grateful every day.

Fiona is a nutritionist and works with busy women empowering lifestyle change. With a background working as a cardiac physiologist, her focus has always been on health. In 2017, Fiona underwent a kidney transplant thanks to an altruistic donation from a close friend. Since then, she has slowly returned to competing in triathlon and open water swimming. Fiona has a blog www.westcorkfit.com where she frequently posts recipes and fitness articles.

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