The man who survived: Dimitri finds happiness beyond sickness and pain

There is a good reason why the Greek equivalent of "hi" and "goodbye" is "'yeia sou", which means "your health" in English. That is because good health is the beginning and end of worthwhile living and not wealth, luck, or even happiness itself. Without health the rest is difficult if not impossible to achieve.

The health challenges that Dimitri Tsekinis from Adelaide has faced over much of his life would have broken anyone. The love of family and friends, the ability of his doctors and a certain inexplicable guidance helped him to persevere when his future seemed bleak and his many illnesses perpetual. Yet in this life nothing stays the same, along with death that is the one other certainty. Dimitri’s life has found calm waters at last, despite the terrible challenges he has faced. He is blessed with a loving partner and he knows the joys of fatherhood. This is his story, in his own words:

I was born to Fotios and Sophia Tsekinis on 15 April, 1981, I was the second child, my sister, Tanya, was born in 1979.
I was seven weeks premature and spent most of my first two years in hospital, the doctors back then had told my parents that I probably wouldn’t survive until I was one, then two, then five, then seven and so on…

I had a polycystic kidney disease – ARPKD (Auto Recessive Polycystic Kidney Disease). In a nutshell, one in every 900,000 children are born with it. The kidneys are often underdeveloped resulting in a 40 per cent death rate in newborns.

My mum made a prayer – she recalled when I was born that she prayed to Mother Mary (Panayia) to take her me in her arms and be my first mother, to look over me, guide me and take care of me. Did this prayer to Panayia work? I believe so.

I don’t remember a lot of the visits to the hospital as a little boy I just knew we were always going for a “check -up”. My parents never treated me like I was sick or had a problem. My mother, against the doctor’s orders, let me eat, drink and basically do what all the other kids do which was play and have fun.

At the age of 14, I started to get sick, but I did not realise the extent of it… my parents just said: “You would be fine the doctors are just going to fix something in your tummy.”

The doctors wanted to put a vein from my liver to my spleen as my spleen was getting too big and it was in danger of bursting. That vein was used, and I recovered after about two months.

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The faces of Dimitri Tsekinis in sickness and health. Photo: Supplied

From the age of 14 to 20 I was fine again. I went out with my friends and lived a normal teenager’s life until my health started to take a turn for the worst.

Six months before my 21st birthday (2002), I noticed a lump in my throat, I went to the doctor who first diagnosed me with glandular fever.

Within the week the lump became bigger (almost as large as a 50-cent coin) and I went to a specialist to get a second opinion.
The specialist told us that I had Stage-4 thyroid cancer and I would need surgery straight away.

Two days after my 21st, I had my second major surgery on my throat. They removed my thyroid and I was in hospital for two weeks.
The cancer came back three months later in the lymph nodes in my throat. I was booked into the radiation unit and was given a pill and told to stay in a room for two weeks in isolation. It was horrible. The radiation made me feel very sick and I had to do this three times over a period of a year.

It became obvious that the radiation was not working so I was booked in to have more surgeries. I had eight surgeries on my throat to remove all the cancer-infected lymph nodes.

During the time of the cancer and the surgeries, I also developed gall stones in my gall bladder, so I was booked in to have my gall bladder removed. Another surgery.

Eventually, the cancer was completely removed and in 2006 I was cancer free, for six months I finally felt myself again until the next major health problem came.

I was 27 years old and my polycystic kidney disease started to take its toll. The professors told us that I would need to go on dialysis for a year before I could have a kidney transplant.

The reason was I was one of the only cases to have had cancer and also needing a transplant and I needed to be cancer-free for four years before I was allowed to have a transplant, so for 18 months, four times a week, for four hours every time I was on dialysis.

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It was a very difficult time for me, I stayed positive knowing I had a lot of love and support around me. My father, sister and mother all had blood tests to see if any of them were compatible to donate a kidney and my mother was.

So, in February 2010, my mother gave me a second chance at life and donated me her kidney. To this day I cannot put in words how to thank my mother. She saved my life.

The rehabilitation after having a kidney transplant was hard, I had many tablets to take, I had to push myself every day, as time went on though, with the support of my family and friends I became better.

In 2015, I started to once again feel unwell with septicaemia and stomach pain. The pain would come and go, I decided though I was well enough to go with a friend to America. As I travelled around New York and New Orleans I felt great and excited – my body was holding up.

But at Las Vegas I started to feel unwell again and I spent most of the time resting in my hotel room.

I returned to Adelaide after a great two weeks, but I knew something was wrong.

I felt very unwell and the doctors could not find a reason. I was in hospital for nine months – I suffered from depression, I became reclusive and I had a lot of anxiety.

It became obvious my liver was slowly filling with septic blood and was getting large and not working properly -my own blood was poisoning me. In January of 2016, a British professor noticed an infection in my bile duct. It was such a tiny infection, but it was causing my blood to become toxic and septic and I was put on the list for an urgent liver transplant.

I deteriorated quite quickly, and I started to prepare myself for death. I was scared but I also was happy because I had a beautiful life, a beautiful.

I have had a lot of people talk to me about God and how he gives his hardest battles to those he loves. I don’t buy that anymore.
And then a suitable liver became available.

I was rushed into surgery that afternoon at 2pm and I was in surgery for 14 hours. The doctors could not believe I was still alive when they saw my liver, they told me when I woke up that I was only minutes away from death as my liver was so toxic from the blood. I “died” for approximately 15-20 minutes on three occasions while I was in surgery.

I suffered a lot from nightmares and I constantly thought of the person who passed away that gave me the chance to live. I didn’t think it was fair that his family had to suffer while my family rejoiced.

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I finally thought to myself this is the third chance I have been given to be alive and I did not want to waste the opportunity. I started to get better again, I re-connected with myself, I went and visited my friends, my cousins, and I was thankful to them for the support they gave me during my dark times.

I met Stephanie in May of 2017 and I knew she was my soulmate. We began dating in July of 2017 and she had a beautiful little girl named Eleana who I lovingly call my stepdaughter. I was told a long time ago that it may be difficult for me to have children, but we proved the doctors wrong.

Our son Christian was born in March last year. We are expecting again, with our daughter due to be born this year on 15 July, the same day as Stephanie.

I have finally realised why I fought so hard to still be alive, I want my story to be told to help people going through hard times, I have been through so much and I have always prayed, I have always tried to hold as much hope and faith as I could.

Now, three years on, I have a beautiful fiancé, I have an amazing stepdaughter who lights up my life and now I have my little boy who I look at and think what a miracle he is and now I get to relive this all over again with the upcoming arrival of our little girl who we will call Sophia, after my mother who because of her I am alive.

The Tsekinis family who stood by Dimitri (third from right holding his son, Christian, over his years of poor health. Photo: Supplied