For Allan McGowan, at the age of only 23, his life had become uncertain.
Just a week after becoming a father he suffered a drop in kidney function so drastic it led to him needing dialysis treatment and his name added to the transplant waiting list.

Now, nearly two years later and seven weeks on from receiving a new kidney, the young Scot has met up with the stranger who donated an organ to save his life to thank her for giving him “a future”.

To mark World Kidney Day, Mr McGowan, now 25, and his donor, Jennie Differ, 26, have spoken about their experiences for the first time in the hope of encouraging others to explore the possibility of donating.

Ms Differ, 26, from Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire, registered her interest in helping Mr McGowan after reading about his story.

As a teenager in Bellshill, Lanarkshire, Mr McGowan was diagnosed with Alport syndrome, a genetic condition characterised by kidney disease, hearing loss and eye abnormalities. In 2017, he was told his kidneys were operating at just 20 per cent of their function.

Soon after, and only days after the birth of his son, Colton, Mr McGowan’s kidney function dropped to 8% and he was rushed to hospital to have an emergency line fitted for dialysis.

It was then he was put on the donor waiting list and, a year-and-a-half later, he finally received the call he had been waiting for: a match had been found. The transplant went ahead on January 22 at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow.

Speaking about her motivations, Ms Differ, a support worker, said: “When I read Allan’s story, I just remember thinking, I want to do this – and made the call. 
“When I spoke to the donor co-ordinator, she explained I might not be a match for Allan but I told her that didn’t matter. I’d happily help anybody.”

Since 2009, 78 people have altruistically donated a kidney in Scotland. A healthy person can lead a completely normal life with one kidney and a transplant from a living donor generally offers the best outcome for patients living with organ failure.

There are usually two routes to living kidney donation: directed donation, where a friend, relative or partner donates to a loved one; or non-directed altruistic donation, which involves a person donating to a stranger who is matched on the waiting list, usually starting a chain of transplants. 

Ms Differ’s gesture is known as “directed altruistic donation”, as her wish was to donate directly to Mr McGowan even though she didn’t know him.

Mr McGowan, who has worked as a labourer, said: “It was brilliant to think there was a chance I could get my life back, and that there was someone that would do that for me.”

In most cases, living organ donors and recipients have little or no contact but Ms Differ was offered a meeting. 

“Normally you can send letters via the donor co-ordinator but, as we were in the same hospital, she asked if we wanted to meet. Allan and his partner Coleen were there. They had a balloon and a card and gave me a hug and I started crying. I was a bit speechless meeting him and seeing how close we were in age.”

Mr McGowan said he “must have said thanks about a hundred times” when they met, adding:  face-to-face for the first time, adding: “It was a total selfless act. It just shows you that there are good people out there. 

“We’re still in touch and me and Coleen are planning to take Jennie and Darren out for dinner once I’m back to full strength. 

“I’m recovering well and am able to do so much more with my wee boy, who keeps me on my toes. Being rid of dialysis is brilliant. I have a future and I have Jennie to thank for that.”

Recent YouGov research highlights almost one third of people in Scotland (30 per cent) hadn’t heard of living kidney donation, while 83% said they would likely consider donating to family member and 16% said they would consider donating to a stranger.

That is also what Maureen Jack did, changing the life of Margaret Jackson. Ten years ago Mrs Jack, now 72, from St Andrews in Fife, became one of the first people in Scotland to give an organ to save a stranger’s life. And, again unusually, she formed a bond with her “kidney twin”.

Meeting for a drink to reflect upon the events of a decade ago, 67-year-old Mrs Jackson, of Cumbria, said: “I would be dead now if I hadn’t had a kidney transplant because I was in desperate need.  What Maureen did was amazing and she has given me my life back. She has done me a very good deed and I’ll be forever grateful.”

In Scotland there are around 500 people on the kidney transplant waiting list and in the last 10 years 264 people have died waiting for an operation.

Mrs Jack said she had a very personal reason for donating one of her kidneys as World Kidney Day falls on the anniversary of the death of her husband George, who died 20 years ago.

Mrs Jack said: “He died from a non-kidney related problem and I would have done anything to give him his life back. So being able to do that for someone else has been important to me.

“It was no more than a minor inconvenience for me but it has made a huge difference to Margaret. It’s good to know that ‘our’ kidney is still going strong.”

The pair met for the first time in Edinburgh four years ago at Mrs Jackson’s request after years of contact, initially anonymously, through their hospitals and then exchanging Christmas cards. 

As it costs £25,000 for a donor operation and £30,000 a year for dialysis, there are significant savings for the NHS, given the years people spend on dialysis.

Chris Jones, chairman of Give a Kidney Scotland, himself a  donor, said: “Our ambitious aim is to make Scotland the first country where no-one need die for the want of a kidney.”