IN mere months, Stephen Blom went from being a super-fit cyclist to being bedridden, hooked up to a dialysis machine as his kidneys slowly failed.
At his lowest point, he contemplated suicide as he struggled to come to terms with the loss of his independence and former lifestyle.
But now, the 40-year-old from Paisley is fighting fit and helping others with chronic kidney disease return to life through his own grassroots charity.
Return to Life helps people cope with being on kidney dialysis and the transplant waiting list by providing tailored information and peer-to-peer support.
This is something Stephen says was lacking after he received his shock diagnosis three years ago.
“I’d come into cycling late but was doing really well until my performance suddenly started to drop,” he said.
“I thought I just wasn’t training hard enough and hit the gym.
“I was at a cycling training camp in Lanzarote when my doctor called with results of recent a blood test. He said my kidneys were functioning at just 10% and I had to get back to the UK immediately. Doctors were shocked I’d been training and living the way I had.”
He then spent a horrific year on dialysis. “It’s brutal. You lose your sense of smell and taste, it was like I was drinking battery acid. I was on a restricted diet and could only drink 500ml of fluid a day. I was cold all the time, vomiting, had mood swings. I felt so weak just opening my eyes was a struggle.
“I’ve known many people who just decide to give up and stop treatment.”
Stephen received a life-saving transplant in 2016 but his road to recovery has been long and arduous, and one he felt he wasn’t prepared for.
“I had no one to speak to. There were no support groups or information. I didn’t know what renal failure or dialysis was.
“There’s also no help for mental health and that’s the first thing that goes. Dialysis is very isolating. I became depressed and didn’t want to see anyone.
“I went from having an independent lifestyle to being bed-bound when my kidneys were operating at just 1%.
“I was depressed to the point where I felt suicidal until I got the call saying I was getting a transplant. But even since then, it’s been a constant struggle.”
Today, Stephen has adapted to life with his kidneys functioning at 50%. Despite being susceptible to infections and fatigue, he’s returned to cycling and even won a time trial bronze medal at the Transplant Games this year.
But running Return to Life is his top priority. Stephen describes his free walk-in centre in Paisley as “one of a kind in Scotland” that’s “filling a major gap that the NHS cannot cover”.
It offers practical guidance, emotional support and mentoring to patients and their families and also works to raise awareness of chronic kidney disease and organ donation. Its been a lifeline to people like Mark Tweedy.
Following his diagnosis in October 2016, the dad-of-two remains on dialysis as he waits on the transplant list. He was forced to give up his job as a designer for Edinburgh University but has found invaluable support through Return to Life.
Now Mark helps run the charity part-time and designs its promotional material like leaflets, posters, and T-shirts.
The 43-year-old said: “Return to Life has given has given me a new lease of life and an extra reason to get up in the morning.
“My mobility is limited, as is my contact with the outside world, but speaking to Stephen has been a godsend and I enjoy meeting other patients and sharing my story.
“I live in Edinburgh and intend to set up a branch here so patients on dialysis and their families can have support and help.
“This is a horrifying disease and it’s important for us to raise as much awareness as possible. It’s about giving people hope.” www.crowdfunder.co.uk/return-to-life-scio.