A partnership in life
Iris and Greg Lee approached marriage as a partnership in life from the beginning. When they met in 1964 at a dance in Goulburn NSW, Iris had been on medication for her kidneys since childhood. The treatment options for renal failure were not good in 1964.
Peritoneal dialysis was only just becoming available in most state hospitals and haemodialysis facilities were only available in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. The first renal transplant in Australia occurred in 1964. However, it would be 1969/70 before the establishment of full renal transplant programs in major state hospitals. Following the birth of their son Graham in Tamworth NSW in 1966, the continued deterioration of her kidney condition resulted in Iris's regular admission to Tamworth Base Hospital. However, there were no acute renal treatment facilities in Tamworth at this time and regular seven-hour drives to Sydney Hospital for week-long peritoneal treatment under Dr John Mahony began about 1971. Pressure had been mounting for the appropriate funding of home dialysis and associated backup technical system leading into the 1972 election when Iris's treatment changed to haemodialysis. However, not long after, the regular family trips to Sydney for Iris's treatment became a thing of the past with an offer to join the new Sydney Hospital home dialysis program in 1975.
We got the news towards the end of the peritoneal course that Prime Minister Whitlam had [funded] home dialysis for Australia. Iris was on dialysis at the [Sydney] Hospital. We didn't have dialysis in the hospital at Tamworth [so Iris was added to the waiting list]. So Dr Mahoney came down and said, "did you hear the news". And I said, "what news" and he said, "the allocation of home dialysis for Australia by Mr Whitlam". He said, "you know Iris will be eligible for it," and I said, "why so?" He said, "there is no dialysis in Tamworth, so she'd have to keep coming down to Sydney".
"So we arrived at the hospital to put [Iris]on dialysis. As they hooked her up, one of the nurses said, "what's your medical experience Mr Lee". I said, "none - why"? [laugh] She said, "can you arrange for a qualified assistant to come and canulate [Iris] because Mr Mahoney put you in for one of those machines". I said, "oh yeah, I think we could arrange with the hospital for that, but", I said "I don't know, I reckon I could manage I think, without making her scream" [smiles] She said, "oh you've got to be joking". Anyway, it took four days to show me, but she explained everything to me and gave me a needle and said, "see what happens". I gave [Iris] a local anaesthetic under [the nurses] supervision. [The nurse] said, "if you can do this again tomorrow, you can take her home". So I said [to Iris - laugh] "shut your fist and your eyes and let me go". [Iris] never whimpered, she never said a word about it, there was no – you can't do this you can't do that" She was some woman … She was a good tutor, the nurse, .. she was right on the spot - almost had her hand on mine the first time. I didn't have any confidence - it was only observation."
When asked about the arrival of the dialysis machine to their home in Tamworth, Greg recollected:
"The machine arrived about mid-week … a nurse arrived with them and she brought it in and she said we need a big tray with a 50mm lip on it all the around in case there is a leakage. [Laughs] Me, of course, with my big mouth, said, "awe strike me, she would have that much blood would she that it would run over that lip would it". She said, "no, it is for the water" [laughs]. So she said, "can we get a plumber to do it? I rang [my brother] Splinter up and said, "what's the chance of knocking a tray up Splint for this dialysis machine?". He said, "oh, you got her". I said "yeah - it arrived this morning". He said "I'll be there in 15 minutes" and he came in and belted one up on the spot."
Having medical equipment at home like this was still in its infancy in those days and the partnership of Greg and Iris had to expand to keep things running safely. Greg recalls:
I can tell you what. There wasn't much about that home machine that I didn't bloody know. Every time I looked at it I could see every bolt and nut. You know its a stupid thing to say but you really got attached to the … thing.
While [Iris] was on there, you only had a certain time [if something went wrong] or you'd have to wind her off by hand. Only once did I ever have to wind her off. I'd ring Sydney direct and it wouldn't be more than a minute or so before someone would be on that phone and I'd get down with a screwdriver and a torch lay on my side and they'd direct me. They were marvellous. For example, they'd say, "there's a Phillips screw on the left-hand side and its branded green … now directly before your eyes where you're laying, you go past that and on the left-hand side"…. "One turn to the right or the left or whatever – yeah, many a time we never got her off the machine until daylight, you know.
Eventually, Iris was on the transplant register. At two o'clock in the morning on 22 September 1977, the phone rang. It was Sydney hospital informing Iris that they had identified a suitable donor and she needed to be in Sydney Hospital by 8 am to prepare for surgery at 10 am. Normally a 7-hour drive, Greg did it in 6!
"That old Morris van she - she fairly flew" he recalled laughing. Iris said to me in that quiet voice of hers, "do you think it, necessary dear, to get in the record book" [laughs] that's all she said - nothing more. She had the weirdest sense of humour of anybody I've come across. … there was no [speed] limit [in those days] but I'd have gone through it anyway – I'd have pushed."
Following the surgery, Greg recalls
Well, you've never seen anything like it when she came out of recovery. It was like … a blind and you were opening the thing up. You could see her colour and bloody everything – right up her face and arms and legs – the change just – immediately. I've never seen anything like it in my life. A couple of hours she was ready to bounce out of bed. And she never had a days sickness with her kidney from that day and it was still as good the day she died. The treatment never changed right up to the day she passed away. So if anybody could see the recovery like that they'd be only too happy to donate their organs.
Thinking further, Greg said
I can't remember a day after the transplant that [Iris] didn't say thanks when she woke up. … Yes, she said she'd be thankful for the rest of her life and blood hell she did. Gosh, we all are. [Iris] was determined never to be responsible for any rejection. She did everything [the doctors told her] to the letter … and thus she had no trouble … other's - they sort of petered out over very few years. So pretty much the secret was look after your transplant it will look after you.
Iris past away peacefully in the early hours of the 12th of March 2016. In honour of Iris and the young man who gifted her life by being a registered kidney donor, Greg will do a tandem skydive on the 12th of March 2021, raising funds to support the work of Kidney Health Australia. The day also coincides with his 100th birthday. Born on the 12th of March 1921, Greg has lived through the Great Depression, served overseas for the entirety of World War 2, been a farmer, shearer, tank builder, welder, rigger, builder, painter, father and partner in the life of "a damn good women".