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Transplant football: Making football more accessible for patients

BY Jason Hughes

18th Oct 2022 Sport

Transplant football: Making football more accessible for patients

Have you heard of transplant football? Jason Hughes shares the story of the efforts to make football more accessible for transplant patients

In 2013 Simon Elmore, a former semi-professional footballer, had given up hope. 

He had spent five years on dialysis after suffering sudden kidney failure.

Elmore’s life had revolved around sport before his illness, but that year he suffered a stroke before developing sepsis. Elmore’s heart stopped beating three times and at one point he was given just thirty minutes to live.

"My life was over," he recalled. "There was no coming back out of that bad place. I had depression for four and a half years and didn’t really give a s**t. My world was all about sport before and I thought I was never going to get that opportunity again."

"It was only when I came across transplant sport that I realised there are endless possibilities after a transplant"

Two years later, Elmore received a kidney transplant. However, it was another discovery that turned his life around: "It was only when I came across transplant sport that I realised there are endless possibilities after a transplant. That’s what changed my mind-set to get healthier and fitter for a transplant."

Within three months of his operation, he was playing walking football again. 

Since then, Elmore has become manager of Nottingham Transplant FC, secured a spot in the England Transplant team and works as a sports coach and fitness instructor. 

What is transplant football?

Transplant sport and the British Transplant Games have been in existence for over 40 years. Transplant football, however, is just six years old in the UK and is already nationwide. 

The sport began with Steve Woodrow, now chairman of the England Transplant FA. Woodrow is an ex-rugby player who received a life-saving kidney transplant in 2012. After transplantation, he felt there was a lack of opportunity for him to safely play football and has tried to fill that void. 

Transplant patient

Steve Woodrow began transplant football after receiving a kidney transplant in 2012

In 2016, Woodrow founded Liverpool Transplant Football Club (LTFC). The sport has since spread across the country through the establishment of the England Transplant FA. There are now regional teams in Nottingham, London, Cheshire and Leeds. Woodrow hopes to form ten clubs in the next year amidst plans for a national league. An England national transplant team has also been established.  

Playing for mental health 

While many transplant footballers will aspire to be scouted for the England setup, for Woodrow the mental wellbeing of players matters most. According to Kidney Care UK, one in three kidney disease patients will experience depression at some point.

"I’ve suffered with depression and the trauma of having a transplant is like PTSD," said Woodrow. "Even though you’ve got your transplant…the trauma of that and the things I went through, I had a stroke and a heart attack, you carry that with you. Just because you’ve had a transplant doesn’t mean that you’re going to be mentally fit."

Football team

Sport teams can provide support networks that tackle mental health issues

Elmore agreed: "I work with transplant patients and my phone is on 24 hours a day because people’s mental health can change overnight."

Both men feel that forming new support networks through sport can tackle post-transplant mental health issues. 

"The main benefit is community cohesion, getting back out into the community to be with likeminded players," said Woodrow.

"For Woodrow the mental wellbeing of players matters most"

LTFC operate a networking group that will meet up if members are feeling low. The club also offers players the opportunity to stay for a chat after training, while Woodrow will phone players for a weekly health check. 

"We’ve had quite a few lads who have struggled with depression, and they’ve tried suicide because the support is not out there for them," he said. "It does help coming and meeting players and talking about what you’ve been through because we find that a lot of the lads have been through the same thing. Networking with likeminded transplant players does help."

Elmore added: "To get back into football again safely gave me such a boost. It’s a family that will always support you. No matter what, our family will always help you."

Is transplant football safe? 

For many, transplant football is a route back into sport that once seemed closed. Crucially, transplant clubs provide a safe environment for them to play without damaging their health.  

"Having a pan-disability team allows people to play under a more supervised, less stressful environment," Elmore explained. "I work with players and if they’re pushing themselves, I’ll sub them. It’s about understanding players, giving them the opportunity but making sure they know their own body."

Physiotherapist

Transplant football works with physiotherapists and fitness experts to ensure safety

Woodrow emphasised that "the priority is your kidney…we have fitness instructors and physios so it’s not just about having a game of football. We look after players, we set fitness targets, we have a website to help them with their diet and fitness. The physio helps them with any injuries and we adapt sessions to meet the needs of all the players."

"For many, transplant football is a route back into sport that once seemed closed"

Transplant football provides a safe, welcoming environment for people to take their first steps back into sport, whatever their end goal. 

Most importantly, its players provide hope for those, like Elmore, who had lost it. 

Advice and support for those suffering with mental health issues can be found freely by ringing 116 123 or emailing jo@samaritans.org. More information on Transplant Football can be found at https://transplantfootball.com/.  

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