“I thought he was dying,” says Richard Pitman. His close friend Tim Gibson had kidney failure and was fading away. So Pitman said: “Gibbo, I want to give you one of my kidneys.” It was an extraordinary offer but Gibson refused. He couldn’t accept an organ from a living donor, he said. The risks to Pitman, the former jockey turned BBC horse racing pundit, were too great. For a start, he was in his late sixties.
That was two years ago. Gibson continued with a routine of thrice-weekly trips to hospital for dialysis, a restrictive diet and constant tiredness. Waiting for a donor organ, he succumbed to E coli and pneumonia. But then somebody died, leaving a kidney for transplant, and Gibson was transformed.
“I had been watching him dying,” says Pitman, “and suddenly he blossomed. He went from dropping off to absolutely zinging.”
End of story? No, because having witnessed this transformation Pitman decided he would donate one of his kidneys to a total stranger. Not by leaving his organs to be reused after his death but at once. After all, he had two kidneys and needed only one, he thought. It is something that fewer than 100 people have done in Britain.
He didn’t mention his plan to his wife, Mandy, or his children until after he had been for tests to determine his blood group and tissue type.
They were not keen: “Mandy said she would rather I didn’t do it, but she would not stand in the way. She was worried that one of the children might one day need my kidney and she worried about the risks associated with going through any kind of operation unnecessarily.”
One of their daughters wasn’t mad about it either. Their objections were useless. “I have two daughters by Mandy and two sons from a previous marriage,” explains Pitman, 69, “so I felt there is enough of a gene pool if anybody needs a donor later.”
So he submitted to further tests to compare the function of his organs and to ensure he was not offering a kidney under pressure or to make money from it and that he was fit for surgery.
“I went into a room with a treadmill,” says the man who still takes horses to the gallops for trainers near his home in Oxfordshire. “They asked: have you ever used one of these? And how long can you keep going on it? I said: all day. I bet they thought cocky little so-and-so! And they raised the ramp higher and higher, but after 15 minutes they had the results they needed.
“As they were taking off the electrodes, the nurse said: Mr Pitman, your heart is really good but your body mass index is a bit high. They wanted me to lose a stone for the operation.”
As a former jockey he knew all about losing weight for big occasions. He used to spend hours in Turkish baths and saunas sweating off excess pounds: “You wore wetsuits and stayed in the room until you nearly passed out. Then you would take a drink from the bottle of Moët chilling in the plunge pool and that would bring you back to life.”
They were different times. Once, after taking a pill, he lost 9lb in a single day: “You can see why they banned them.” The organ that would have been most affected by this, of course, was the kidney. But happily Pitman’s was deemed good enough for transplant.
When he retired, Sporting Life saluted him with the headline “Failure, failure, failure”. He had twice come second in the Grand National and twice come second in the Gold Cup. But he had also ridden 470 winners.
He went on to become a racing commentator and to run a small stud, breeding racehorses and ponies. He also wrote thrillers with a racing theme. As he approaches 70, however, he has slowed down.
The three-hour operation took place in January. Pitman is not allowed to say the exact date because the recipient might work out whose organ they received.
In the past it was necessary to remove a rib before taking somebody’s kidney. Keyhole surgery has changed that, but to make room for all the equipment a patient’s torso is pumped full of compressed air. “You swell up like a Michelin man,” says Pitman, who was troubled by rumblings for a while, although he recovered quickly.
Mandy remains by no means happy that he went through with it. “If it was for a member of our family I could have understood,” she says. “Especially as I have seen Tim refuse to allow his own family to donate.”
Pitman replies: “But how did you feel when Tim finally got one and burst back into life?”
“Good, but that was from a donor who had died,” she says. “Tim feels a lot of responsibility for what you did.”
Pitman responds: “But it’s not as if he asked me to do this.” Later Gibson tells me he will remain eternally grateful for Pitman’s sacrifice: “What he has done will make a vast change to somebody and to their family, too. And I would love to think that others will follow his example.”
878 words. First published 12 February 2012. © Times Newspapers Ltd.