Teen athlete wins big at Transplant Games

Posted on Thursday 1st September 2022

Rian, 17, celebrating with his medals.

Rian Snell, 17, recently took home four gold medals from the British Transplant Games, followed by one gold and three bronze medals at the European Transplant and Dialysis Games.

Having been cared for by the Evelina London Children’s Hospital team since he was two days old, Rian has given thanks to the staff who have supported him to pursue his love of sport.

While still in the womb, Rian was diagnosed with a rare condition called posterior urethral valve (PUV). Children with PUV have a blockage in the tube which runs from the bladder to the outside, which causes urine to reflux back up to the kidneys, causing renal failure. Left untreated, this can eventually lead to death.

Rian had his first procedure while he was still in the womb. Unfortunately, he needed to undergo several more operations and procedures before receiving a crucial kidney transplant. In July 2008, when he was three years old, Rian received a kidney from his mother Karen at Evelina London.

Karen, who lives in Attleborough, East Anglia, with Rian’s father Matthew said: “As he’d been through so much in his first years, Rian was understandably quite an anxious child and had developed some attachment issues. That all began to change after Rian began competing in the British Transplant Games.”

Rian and his family attended their first British Transplant Games when he was four years old and he has competed at the event every year since. The games see patients from different hospital teams compete in 25 different sports events, such as swimming, tennis, table tennis, badminton, cycling and athletics.

Each year, Evelina London, supported by Evelina London Children’s Charity, sends a team of kidney transplant patients known as the Evelina VIPs (Very Important Penguins, referring to the hospital’s urology and kidney department, Penguin Ward), to compete at the British Transplant Games.

More than just a sporting competition, the British Transplant Games allows children and their families to connect with others who have been through similar experiences.

Karen said: “After one of Rian’s first Transplant Games, he said that while he was there he felt normal. He wasn’t the only one with tubes, or who needed medication. He didn’t feel any different to anyone else.

“As a parent I understood where he was coming from. When you meet other families who’ve got a child who has had a transplant, there’s an understanding there that you’ve been through a similar journey.

“Not only did the games introduce Rian to the sports that he loves so much, but it took his mind off the daily medications, routines and procedures needed to sustain his transplant and allowed him the space to be himself and to flourish. It became our yearly holiday and has been loved and cherished by his siblings Arun, Daniel and Louise, almost as much as it has been by Rian.”

For the first few years, the games were a fun way for Rian to spend a few days making new friends but as time went on, his flair for athletics began to shine.

Karen said: “Rian began taking a real interest in trying to beat his performance from the previous year. His focus was not so much about beating the other children, but more about him wanting to be the best that he could be and that has only grown as time has gone on.

“One year, an official working at the games spotted how good Rian was and encouraged me to sign him up to an athletics club. Since then, he hasn’t looked back.”

At this year’s games, Rian got a gold in the 100 metres, Shot Put, Long Jump, Ball Throw and a bronze in the relay. For each of the events he competed in, he got a personal best.

Rian said: “This year has probably been the most important games for me as it’s my last competing as a junior as part of Evelina London’s team. I’ve made so many incredible friendships over the years with people who are similar to me. People who I know I’ll be friends with for the rest of my life.”

As Rian and his family have moved from the south east, his care will move from Evelina London to his local hospital. However, he’s been invited to join the Guy’s and St Thomas’ adult British Transplant Games team from now on.

After success at the British Transplant Games, Rian went on to compete at the European Transplant and Dialysis Sports Games in Oxford, where he once again got a personal best in each of his four competitions. The results from this event could see him qualify for the World Transplant Games 2023 in Perth, Australia.

Rian said: “I don’t think I would be the person I am today without the opportunity that Evelina London gave me to compete. Though I’ve had a lot of difficulties, I see the kidney transplant I got from my mum as a gift of life and I’m determined to live my life to the fullest.”

The Evelina VIPs are supported by team managers Grainne Walsh, transplant advanced nurse practitioner, Cathy Gill, senior play specialist and Pat Hayes, pharmacy operations manager, plus 11 volunteers. 

Grainne Walsh said: “I’d like to wish a massive congratulations to Rian for doing so brilliantly at the British and European Transplant Games. His performance at the British Transplant Games is always astounding and this year he continued to show what a talented athlete he is. We’re so proud that he has been a member of our Evelina VIPs since he was a child and we’ll all be behind him as he continues to excel in sport as an adult. 

“The British Transplant Games has a huge place in the hearts of all the Evelina London staff and volunteers who attend each year. Being able to see the children and young people compete and forget about their condition for just a few days is a privilege. It is also such a special event for their families and I’d like to wish a huge thank you to all who support the games each year.” 

The Evelina London kidney transplant service is the country’s first established children’s kidney programme, pioneering children’s transplantation in 1968.  

Patients in need of organ transplants rely on people being willing to donate their organs after death or donating a kidney or part of their liver as living donors. 

You can register your decision about organ donation at www.organdonation.nhs.uk.