Kidney Awareness Week – Return of the Cole-Bakers

Getting lost until dark, stuck on a cliff and character-building loneliness were all part of Whangarei kidney donor Ros Cole-Baker’s adventures while walking the length of New Zealand. But these low-lights were in stark contrast to the highlights: being followed Pied Piper-style by supporters, stunning scenery and historical trails, hospitable people, good health and no blisters and learning of potential donors coming forward as a result of her and husband Hugh’s quest.

The couple returned home in February after setting off from Cape Reinga in September 2014 with Hugh following the same track in the campervan. Ros donated her kidney to Hugh in 2013 and, after the successful outcome, decided to walk and mountain bike the length of the country, following the Te Araroa Trail, to encourage others to donate.

The trip took five months, as predicted, and generated a small nation-wide media storm, which led to numerous potential donors coming forward.

Kidney Health New Zealand education manager Carmel Gregan-Ford describes the Cole-Bakers are an inspirational couple.

“I do notice that our 0800 free phone line becomes busier with inquiries from people thinking about being a kidney donor when there is a story in the media.”

Whangarei Hospital renal nurse manager Cheryle Kiwi says, shortly after the Cole-Baker’s set out last year they had 13 potential local donor queries, which was a ‘great response’.

“It is very encouraging, not only for the Cole-Bakers, but for Northlanders on dialysis awaiting kidney transplantation.”

There are currently 176 Northlanders undertaking dialysis to keep them alive. Of these, 36 are medically suitable to be listed on the national kidney transplant list and are waiting for a suitable donor.

The main cause of kidney failure in New Zealand is diabetes. Northland statistics from 2011 show that 32.2 per cent of Maori were affected by diabetes, 1.7 per cent of Pacific Islanders and 66.2 per cent of other nationalities.

Currently 71 Northlanders have had a functioning kidney transplant and Hugh Cole-Baker is one of these. Hugh struggled with kidney disease for 10 years, resulting in renal failure and the need for dialysis, before Ros donated one of her kidneys.

The transplant was a success and, with Hugh’s new lease on life, the couple are passionate about reducing the waiting list of the 600 New Zealanders in need of a transplant.

“The main highlight,” says Ros, “and the one that kept us excited for a long time was the phone call from the Whangarei Renal Unit as I came out of the Russell Forest saying there were eight enquiries about live donation in our home town. And now I hear there are now 13! It is very exciting.

“The next (highlight) would be having the Southland Kidney Society people from Invercargill come out to meet us on our last walk. As we approached the big signpost at Bluff, we had grown to an excited group of 10. Visiting the dialysis ward at Dunedin Hospital (was also a highlight) where we were told they were soon appointing a transplant co-ordinator along with the idea to make use of our newspaper articles and trip photos towards the live donorship cause.

“Also the dialogue and conversations which opened up along the way through Facebook and newspapers. We started writing down the ‘kidney stories’, and there were more than 30, with many more people just wanting to chat. We were thanked for coming, but at the same time we found this very validating of our cause, and so gratifying for us too.”

Other highlights were the ‘stunning natural beauty’ of some of the more scenic places, cycling old tram tracks and high-suspension bridges.

Lowlights included: “Walking alone most of the time. I was a long way from any other people but this was ok and taught me a lot. It was character-building.”

However, Ros failed to put a positive spin on getting lost till dark, walking in the opposite direction and becoming stuck on a cliff due to a ‘foolish decision’.

“For Hugh it was two flat tyres at the same time at Mavora Lakes.”

Ros says the couple were blessed with good health, and no blisters with four pairs of footwear to rotate as needed,

There were many features of small towns which stood out but their favourites were Wellington and Wanaka, which were ‘stimulating, outdoorsy and had a lot going for them’.

However, Whangarei was right up there for them: “With its new bridges and walkways extending the Town Basin area and being used too, it’s a lovely place to return to.”

While the Cole-Bakers say it is good to be back home at their Whangarei-based bed and breakfast and having more living space, it is hard to find new focus and energy after such a trip.

“It is sad to finish, as it was such a huge overall experience, and not something one is likely to have again,” says Hugh. “We are missing the day-to-day meeting of new people, and discovering little corners of New Zealand. We quite often said: “Well, every day is different”, to each other, and so they were.”

Back home, Ros and Hugh reminisce about their adventures via their many newspaper clippings they collected along the way.


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