When comedian Jarlath Regan heard his brother in the US needed a kidney to prolong his life, he didn’t hesitate to offer his own, writes Richard Fitzpatrick.
Not everybody in life gets to become a hero. When the chance presented itself to the comedian and podcast star, Jarlath Regan, he grabbed it with gusto.
Last June, as it became apparent that his only brother, Adrian, who is older than him by a decade, needed a kidney transplant, the 36-year-old, Co Kildare-born comic didn’t have to think twice about it. He was a match. Game on.
“I laid my cards firmly on the table the second it was mentioned,” he says. “I’d give it to him tomorrow if he needed it. I said I would post it to him. I don’t know where that feeling came from, but I guess people reading this interview can probably relate to it – there are things that you’ll do for your family that you’d have to think long and hard about for other people."
"My brother was my best friend growing up. He had been a support the whole way through my life. A second father is how I’d describe my brother to me. I joke about it but if he came back to me now and said, ‘It’s not actually the kidney this time, it’s my thumb; I need another thumb,’ I’d happily give him mine.”
Regan’s brother works as a stud farmer in Kentucky, USA, where he lives with his wife. The operation was scheduled for February 1, at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota. As the date for it drew closer, his kid brother wasn’t assailed by doubts about the organ donation.
“I didn’t have any moment of, ‘Oh, no, am I doing the wrong thing?’ at any time,” says Regan. “I asked when I was being assessed mentally – and overall – at the Mayo Clinic: ‘Was this normal? Why was I not feeling any anxiety?’ They said, ‘It’s not unheard of. People can be very gung-ho about it. Donors are special people.’
“But they said also, identifying something quite rightly: ‘Often when the person is as gung-ho as I was, the strain, the doubts and the anxiety can be transferred onto their nearest person,’ which in my case is my wife who has her own kidney issues.
“This is not my first rodeo. My wife’s kidney situation for the 17 years that we’ve been together has not been good and has required hospitalisation at various different times.
"Ironically, many of the tablets that my brother now takes, as anti-rejection medicine, she has been taking for the duration of our relationship. I think she internalised a lot of the worry that I simply didn’t feel. There was a long period of me talking her through it, and explaining why I was so steadfast that this was the thing that I would do.”
Regan and his wife, Tina, emigrated from Dublin in March 2013 for better opportunities in London.
A few months after settling down, Regan launched his weekly podcast, An Irishman Abroad, in which he conducts long-form interviews with celebrities from entertainment, sport and other endeavours. It’s a ratings hit and has picked up several awards. Their son, Mikey, who is “six going on 16”, took the news about his dad’s kidney donation in his stride.
“We would regard ourselves as pretty new age in terms of our parenting with that young lad,” says Regan. “There’s nothing that doesn’t get explained to him unlike when we were growing up: ‘that’s what’s happening; don’t ask any questions.’ Organ donation and the morals of it were explained to him. His natural first instinct was, ‘I don’t want anybody cutting up my daddy.’ His second instinct was: ‘My daddy’s amazing – he’s going to save his brother’s life.’”
At this point, Regan clarifies that his brother wasn’t in danger of imminent death. He needed a new kidney to prolong his life, to possibly add, say, 30 years to it, and avoid going on dialysis. “Once that was explained to him, Mikey was on board,” he continues. “He was delighted to explain in school in front of his class what his dad was doing. Kids love a bit of gruesome stuff.”
Outside of his family circle, Regan encountered a mix of reactions, a few of them straight from the Twilight Zone. “Anytime anybody asked on the journey to the US: ‘What is the purpose of your visit?’ it’s the most fun answer you’ll ever get to give.” “People’s reactions are amazing. If you drop it into conversation, it can change people’s opinion of you straightaway.
"The reactions that surprised me were when people would give no reaction. You’d say it, and they’d go, ‘ah, yeah’ and carry on talking. One of the funniest reactions was somebody said, ‘Does he really need it?’ I said, ‘I haven’t seen the data, but I assume he needs it. Ever since I was a kid, he has wanted everything I’ve ever had so I wouldn’t put it past him.’ ”
Regan mentions that sometimes families can fall out over a live organ donation. “The decision brings up emotions in families,” he explains.
“First of all, people have their reasons for not doing it. There are the people who want to do it, but aren’t a match and then they can feel a certain level of resentment for the person who is getting to do it.”
Or it can cause financial worries by having to take a couple of months off work for the operation and rehabilitation. In the UK – where Regan lives – and Ireland, the state subsidises donors by providing sick pay.
On the morning of the operation, Jarlath, Adrian and their wives met up at 6.30am. They walked together from their hotel to the hospital. They were prepped in rooms side by side, and, moments before they were put on two gurneys and wheeled down to the operating theatre, they bumped knuckles, professed their love to each other and off they went.
“My favourite part of any operation is the Men in Black moment when you close your eyes and you open them and you’re back in your bed, and that is exactly what happened. I opened my eyes and my wife was there,” he says.
“I was told in that moment – and this is usually when I get emotional – that when they transplanted the kidney and hooked it up, it worked in that instant. There are few highs like it in the world.
"In fact, I would say that if people knew the sensation and elation to be gained from doing this, there would be no shortage of organs in the world because the feeling, the impact you can have on somebody’s life is indescribable.”
Regan stresses that the successful kidney donation won’t be “a lightning cure” for his brother’s underlying hypoparathyroidism, but his body is better able to deal with it.
“He also has a full functioning kidney in him to make it a lot easier,” he adds.
“I call my kidney Declan. That’s the one I gave him. I held onto Billy. Declan is a beast. Every meeting Adrian goes to, the doctors say, ‘This is a spectacular kidney.’ That is very heartening to hear. While he will be on a lot of medication, in terms of anti-rejection pills, and he has a long road ahead, but it’s one that is substantially less uphill.”
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