For many men it’s a pair of socks or slippers for their birthdays when they reach a certain age. Not Willie Carr. He received a new kidney!
The former Wolves midfielder – famed for his ‘donkey kick’ free kick routine – underwent a transplant at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth hospital on his 69th birthday. He spent two weeks there after an anonymous donor match was found.
Carr had been waiting for a donor for a year and had been on dialysis for about five months for eight hours a night attached to a machine at his bedside.
He was told he had abnormally small kidneys following tests when he thought he had cracked ribs while playing in a charity game at Molineux when he was 40, and started feeling discomfort three years ago.
The ex-Scotland international, who won six caps, said: “I feel fine now. I will be eternally grateful to the family who gave permission to donate the kidney, and to the nurses and doctors, who were brilliant.
“It could have saved my life because I don’t know how long my kidney was going to last. I could have ended up with renal failure.”
But he admits the problem might have been discovered many years before.
“When I was about 23 I had a urine test and they found albumin in the sample (which can indicate kidney dysfunction),” he said.
“They did a biopsy but the bit taken away was not good enough and it was left at that.
“Then, many years later after I’d finished playing, I was playing in a charity game at Molineux. I played a one-two with a lad and I got a smack in the ribs and I thought I’d broken them.
“I had an x-ray and everything was OK but I was told I had abnormally small kidneys.
“Then about three years ago I was playing golf and had to go to the toilet. My urine was a different colour and I felt a stinging sensation.
“I went on antibiotics for three or four days and everything was OK but the same thing happened a year later.
“I went to see the doctor and was asked if I’d ever been on dialysis and I was told I needed to go to hospital to get it checked out.
“It was at that point that things started going downhill. I just felt lethargic. I remember playing a couple of holes of golf at Patshull and feeling knackered and I’d never felt like that before.”
Carr counts himself as one of the fortunate ones after revealing the process for a match.
“I was really lucky because I only had to wait for a year for a donor,” he said. “There are that many people waiting for many years in some cases.
“I’m just grateful that somebody gave their permission to be able to have someone’s organ.
“They say never to switch your phone off because they can receive a match at any time.
“They also tell you to let them know if you’re more than two or three hours from hospital because there is only a four-hour window.
“I got a telephone call at home on January 5 at 6.25pm to say ‘we think we have found a donor, so can you come to hospital straight away?’
“I was in overnight and then they took me down to the operating theatre at 3.30am. The surgeon was telling me what could go wrong and I was just thinking ‘Shut up and get on with it!’”
But he revealed the nature of the surgery might surprise some.
“They leave the old kidney at the back and they put the new one in the front,” he explained.
“I came round the next morning and was awoken at 6.10am to take my blood pressure. I was in hospital for about 14 or 15 days altogether. I couldn’t fault them. They were brilliant.
“There was a young lad in the bed next to me who was only 20 and his dad had donated his kidney.
“He was fine but his dad was struggling. Sometimes the donor is worse off.”
Carr made his first high-profile public appearance since undergoing surgery at the ‘Smile For Joel’ charity dinner at the Copthorne Hotel in Brierley Hill last week, chauffeured by former team-mate and long-time friend John Richards.
Joining over 30 former West Midlands players – including 17 from Wolves – and 340 guests supporting the event that raised over £10,000 on the night for homicide victims’ families, he has already noticed a vast improvement in his health since his operation.
“I feel a lot better because I was getting very tired, and feeling up and down,” he said. “Since the operation it’s been getting better all the time.
“The kidney is still not performing at 100 per cent, because it’s a slow process, but the tests show it’s improving all the time.
“I had a couple of blips two weeks running but it’s nothing to worry about. In fact I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how well I feel.”
Initially after the surgery he had to travel back to the QE twice a week to check how the kidney was functioning, but that’s now down to weekly check-ups.
Now the organ is performing well, he is hoping the assessments can be done closer to home, at Wolverhampton’s New Cross Hospital, and once a fortnight.
“I saw the surgeon two weeks ago for the first time since the operation and I asked him if I could start playing golf again,” added Carr. “He said ‘you’re probably 80 per cent fit so give it three weeks then play three or four holes and see how you go’.
The new kidney can last from five to 10 years, so he might have to have another transplant in the future – the best option – or go back on dialysis.
The father-of-four and grandfather of five has received dozens of cards from wellwishers and regular telephone calls from Wolves pals including Richards, Kenny Hibbitt, Phil Parkes, Gerry Taylor and Phil Nicholls, plus Roy Barry and Chris Cattlin from his Coventry City days.
In the months leading up to his surgery, Carr’s wife Tessa was examined to see if she was a match but test results indicated it would have been too risky to leave her with one functioning kidney.
So their children were next to be tested and three of the four – sons Anthony, Stuart and Robert, all in their 40s, and daughter Vanessa – were suitable matches.
Thankfully the Carrs didn’t have to go through the ordeal of seeing one of their children lose a major organ.
“They had all gone through the process but they had to be assessed one at a time,” he said.
Although a proud Scot, Carr, whose birthday is on January 6, now has a part of him that will be forever from Wolverhampton – from the anonymous donor.
“You don’t know who has donated the kidney, but you can write to the family at a later stage to see if they will let you find out where it’s come from,” he said.
“Normally they say to wait until you’re OK before letting you delve into things. But you have to honour the wishes of the other family.
“More and more people are now volunteering to donate but I would urge anyone to do so because you can save a life.”
Carr won national fame for his ‘donkey kick’ with Coventry team-mate Ernie Hunt in October 1970 in a 3-1 win against Everton. It was Match Of The Day’s first televised game in colour.
But the free kick was outlawed by UEFA at the end of that season as Carr had been deemed to have touched the ball twice, and because the ball hadn’t travelled its full circumference as he had flicked it up between his ankles.
The classy midfielder played 289 games for Wolves from 1975-82, winning the League Cup in 1980 and the Second Division title in 1977 after 292 appearances for the Sky Blues, who he joined in 1965 and helped to their only top-six finish in the top flight five years later.
A victim of Wolves’ financial crisis in 1982, he joined Millwall for a knockdown £10,000 before returning to the Midlands to finish his playing career with Worcester City then two spells at Stourbridge sandwiching a stint at Willenhall Town.
Carr, who has lived in the same house in the same Shropshire hamlet since moving from Coventry in 1975, continued playing for Wolves All Stars until well into his 40s and kicked off a new career as a sales representative, selling engineering supplies until his retirement.
He is still a regular visitor to Molineux as a supporter, but given his recent surgery, will watch Saturday night’s FA Cup quarter-final against Manchester United at home on TV.
“I think it will be close,” he said. “I would like to say it will be 2-1 to us but I’m not that confident – I think there’s a question mark against that because of the way United have been playing and their lads up front.
“The big lad Romelu Lukaku has been scoring again but he missed some chances against Arsenal.
“I’ve been hugely impressed with Marcus Rashford – he’s so good for his age and so cool in front of goal. But fingers crossed we can do it.”