When 70-year-old Brian Donovan took out gold in the Bowls Singles at last year’s Australian Transplant Games, it was the latest in a long line of awards for a man whose attitude embodies the tenacious spirit of the entire transplant community. Together with his younger brother Ray, who in 1982 gave Brian one of his kidneys, the Victorian siblings have come to represent the battle of the possible over the impossible – and to hold out hope for thousands who have come after them.
Today, the Donovan brothers are a regular fixture at the Australian Transplant Games, which Brian and his wife Pauline co-founded in Melbourne in 1988. In the 16 games to date, Brian has won 12 medals in seven different events – usually with his lifesaving donor at his side.
‘Without Ray and my loving wife, I simply wouldn’t be here,’ says Brian. ‘I wouldn’t have seen my daughters grow up. I wouldn’t have got to know my grandchildren. These two are real legends for me.’
What makes the Donovans’ story so special is that, back in the 1970s, transplants were a relatively new science – and Brian was repeatedly told he was not strong enough for the operation. ‘I spent so many weeks in the Children's Hospital as a boy, and when I was about 25, Pauline was told I had only 12 hours to live. Then at 31, I contracted a staph infection after my kidneys were removed, and my chances of having a transplant shot down again.’
So when, after eight years of home dialysis, Brian was finally told he could have a new kidney, he seized the opportunity with both hands. ‘By that stage, I had hairline fractures all over my body from the lack of calcium caused by the dialysis,’ he says.
Awash with awards
The rest of the story, as they say, is history. Brian not only survived the operation; he thrived. Just two years later, he was representing Australia in tennis and table tennis at the 1984 World Transplant Games in Amsterdam. Over the following decade, he would attend five more World Games – winning medals in tennis and bowls, and golds in the 4x100m relay and table tennis doubles.
Today, the retired Coles manager is regarded as something of a legend in his community of Doncaster, where he’s a regular champion at the local bowls club and a former Manningham Citizen of the Year.
He’s been one of Australia’s most vocal advocates for transplant sports, both as president of the Transplant Sports Association, and as a council member of the World Transplant Games – where he led the successful bid for Sydney to host the World Games in 1997.
But for Brian, all these accolades pale alongside the love of his family. ‘When my kids were babies, I never thought I’d see them growing up,’ he says, pushing back the tears. ‘But now, our two daughters have given us four lovely grandkids. It’s certainly good to be alive!’
The love extends naturally to Ray, 69, who remembers their mother being ‘ecstatic’ when she first heard about the possibility of the transplant. ‘We all lined up, five siblings, and I was the best tissue match. We’d been told that Brian was going to die, but we’re a close family and we weren’t going to let him go without a fight.’
Ray is clearly the joker of the family, and remembers making light of the tough days before the operation. ‘Brian asked me a few times why I was doing it, and I just said: “Well it’s easier to give you a kidney than bury you!”’
After their transplant, Ray, a Shepparton schoolteacher, also became involved in the Transplant Sports Association, helping Brian take the Australian team to the World Games in Amsterdam and Singapore in 1984 and ’87. ‘I’ll never forget acting as social manager in Amsterdam, where we were invited to take 27 members of the team to a show that turned out to be quite ‘adult’ in nature,’ laughs Ray. ‘The older ones were all saying their Hail Marys, and I had to keep my head down for quite a while after that!’
A new national event
When the Donovans returned to Australia, they sought support for a permanent national event. But it was no easy task. ‘No one wanted to do it,’ says Brian. ‘So Pauline and I just said, “Bugger it, we’ll do it!”’ Together with fellow kidney recipient David Cairns, Brian secured sponsorship from the Australian Sports Commission, Kmart and others to hold a small tournament in Melbourne. ‘We thought we were going to have 60 competitors, but it in the end 156 registered,’ says Brian. ‘Fortunately, we also got plenty of support from local hotels and sports venues.’
The inaugural 1988 Australian Transplant Games were a roaring success, with appearances from the then Victorian Sports Minister Neil Trezise, the late newsreader Brian Naylor, and Australia’s youngest heart transplant recipient, Fiona Coote – then a shy teenager. The golf, tennis and table tennis matches were featured on ABC and Channel 7 evening news bulletins.
‘It was a joyous event,’ recalls Brian. ‘Before these games, people who’d undergone kidney transplants had never met anyone who’d received a new kidney, heart or liver. Suddenly there they were surrounded by dozens of people who’d been through the same thing. It created a real sense of belonging.’
Last year, the Australian Transplant Games turned 30, with a bumper 16th games at the Gold Coast attracting more than 700 athletes from Australia and New Zealand competing in 20 different sports. The next games will be held in Launceston, Tasmania, in September 2020. So will Brian be competing? ‘Of course I will! I’ll definitely be in the bowls – and I might even throw my hat in the ring for the table tennis.’ Brian Donovan will never say die.
Reviewed 19 July 2022