They met as badminton rivals – but these kidney transplant survivors are now a golden couple on and off the court.
Zoe Buchanan and Lucy Young first faced each other across the net but went on to discover that they make amazing doubles partners.
The women had led remarkably similar lives as youngsters but lived 500 miles apart.
Both were given a new kidney by their parents after their own organs failed, suffering potentially deadly complications after their transplants.
And both battled to compete in the British Transplant Games.
Now Zoe, 25, and Lucy, 22 have been crowned British champions twice and last year won silver medals at the World Transplant Games in Newcastle.
Their friendship blossomed into romance and after 175 days apart during lockdown, they finally reunited at Lucy’s home in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.
Zoe said: “There is someone out there for everyone – it just took us a couple of new organs to find each other. We are more than best friends, we are soulmates.
“We’ve been through so much, it is incredible to find someone else who really understands that.”
Zoe, from the Shetland Isles, was born with Russell-Silver syndrome – a genetic disorder that affected her growth.
One of her kidneys was three times the size of the other and neither worked properly.
As a teenager, she was on a dialysis machine for 12 hours a day.
When she reached end-stage kidney failure, her mum Jill knew that donating a kidney would
be faster than her daughter joining the waiting list.
So at 14, Zoe had the operation and Jill was in an adult hospital two or three miles away.
Zoe said: “My stepdad Colin was dashing between us. Two days after the transplant, he brought my mum to see me.
“She was on such strong painkillers she doesn’t remember it at all, but she was determined to see me.”
Weeks after returning home, however, Zoe developed potentially fatal peritonitis and had
to be flown to the mainland by air ambulance.
She said: “It was very scary. My favourite film as a child was Finding Nemo and there’s a line: ‘When life gets you down, just keep swimming.’
“That became my life’s motto. I now have, ‘Just keep swimming’ tattooed on my arm.”
Lucy suffered similar difficulties. At the age of four, she was smaller than her sister Bryony, despite being two years older, and was diagnosed with kidney failure.
At the age of 11, she had a kidney removed and started dialysis.
Mum Charlotte and dad Simon volunteered to be her donor. Lucy said: “My dad was a slightly better match, so he was chosen to be my donor. Not having that wait for a donor was a huge relief.”
Lucy’s new kidney took two weeks to “wake up” and start working but she had a rare reaction to the anti-rejection drugs. Her immune system went into overdrive, causing tumours to grow throughout her body.
She said: “I woke up after the biopsy and saw my dad in tears at the end of the bed. They found tumours in my lungs, my liver… everywhere.”
Only Lucy’s brain, heart and donated kidney were clear.
She said: “If they hadn’t caught it, I wouldn’t have lasted much longer.”
Lucy had eight courses of chemotherapy in just four months to get rid of the tumours before she was given the all clear. Yet less than 12 months later, she competed at her first British Transplant Games.
The medical student said: “I wasn’t sporty at all. I deliberately chose to have my chemotherapy on the days I normally had PE at school.
“But spending so much time in a small transplant unit was very lonely and the doctors said the games might be a good way to meet other children in a similar position.
“I didn’t go to win a medal – I went to make friends and badminton seemed like something I could have a go at.”
It worked better than Lucy could ever have imagined as she met Zoe at her second games in 2013, when they went head-to-head in the opening round.
Lucy was still something of a novice but Zoe, whose grandmother was a Scottish badminton champion, had hoped to represent her country at the Commonwealth Games before her kidneys failed.
Lucy said: “We probably wouldn’t be together now if Zoe hadn’t gone easy on me in that match. She let me win a few points, otherwise I might have lost interest and given up.
“Gradually, I started playing more and began working with a badminton coach when I went to university. That’s when I really started to improve.”
The couple kept in touch on Facebook and four years later, Zoe asked Lucy to be her doubles partner. They won gold at their first games together in 2017. Zoe missed the following year’s event due to illness but the pair reclaimed their crown in 2019.
Zoe also won silver in the badminton singles and in the doubles with Lucy at the World Transplant Games in Newcastle in 2019.
The pair would meet at Team GB training camps but when Lucy visited Zoe in Scotland in December 2018, they decided that they wanted to be more than just teammates.
Zoe still lives in the Shetlands but plans to move south to be with Lucy. She is saving hard to afford the move, working in a traditional sweet shop by day and as a DJ by night.
She now has cardiomyopathy, the condition that caused footballer Fabrice Muamba to have a cardiac arrest in 2012 during a Premier League match.
Zoe may need a heart transplant one day and both her and Lucy will probably need further kidney transplants. Zoe said: “We don’t know when we will need another transplant… we just have to play the hand we are dealt.
“When I look to the future, Lucy is at the heart of that. We’ll enjoy the good times and when things get difficult, we’ll do what we’ve always done – we’ll just keep swimming.”
- Zoe and Lucy shared their story to promote Organ Donation Week, which starts tomorrow. For more details about organ donation and talking about it with family, https://www.nhsbt.nhs.uk/.