Organising an extra three decades of life
Ahead of Organ Donor Awareness Week, Margaret Jennings talks with Vera Dwyer, the longest-surviving single lung transplant victim in the world
THREE decades ago she was given five years to live, but Sligo-based Vera Dwyer has defied the odds and now holds the title of the longest-surviving single lung transplant recipient in the world.
The great-grandmother, who celebrated her 77th birthday just last week, received her certificate from the Guinness Book of Records four years ago.
At the age of 47 — then a mother of four children — she was told her time was limited, after she underwent a pioneering lung transplant operation in the Royal Brompton and Harefield Hospital in London, because she was suffering from a condition called fibrosis alveolitis — a progressive thickening of the walls of the air sacs of the lungs.
It seemed a cruel blow that fate had dealt, since she had never smoked and was fit, but she faced it with a day-by-day determination that has stood by her well. “Every day was a bonus to me. If I got five years I was thinking ‘the youngest one will be such an age’ and ‘the next one will be such an age’... and that’s the way I was looking at it.”
As the years mounted and her children grew up, Vera got on with her life in the family farm at Carrowcrory, grateful every day to her organ donor who had made those extra decades possible.
Then nine years ago she was faced with kidney failure, a side-effect, she says, of the anti-rejection drug she had been taking for her original transplant. “I was on home dialysis for about 18 months and that was a big ordeal. Then I had to go to Sligo three times a week for dialysis and that was hard going. Eventually, I was offered the transplant — I was coming home from dialysis and I got the word in the taxi,” she tells Feelgood.
Aware that she has been doubly blessed by organ donation, Vera says: “Only for my two donors I would be long gone — I pray for them every single day and for their families... they were so good to donate their organs.”
So what has kept her going? She has a strong religious faith and huge connection with her adult children and the extended family who all live within a five-minute drive of her home, which is especially precious since her “rock”, her husband Mike, died after 50 years of marriage some years back.
“I asked God every day to let me see my children get reared and then it went from that to see them get married. And from that to see their children, so it keeps going on... That’s what’s keeping me alive. I keep pushing the goalposts out with God... my bucket list keeps getting bigger,” she says.
In her late 40s when given a death sentence, she would never have dreamt she’d see her six grandchildren grow up, not to mention two great-grandchildren — “two lovely little girleens”, Leah 6, and Alyesha 2.
She’s committed to a healthy lifestyle too, including eating home-cooked food and walking daily, but is currently hindered as she’s on crutches awaiting a hip operation.
So how does she feel about facing the operating theatre again? “I’m a great believer in the Sacred Heart and any time I was having an anaesthetic all I would say is ‘Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in thee’, and I was gone to sleep. And then I’d wake up and I’d be so grateful.”
One of the gifts she received three decades ago when her health failed was a fuller appreciation of her surroundings: “I love nature. My goodness... I never saw it until I got sick. I hadn’t time to look around. And then when you get sick you see all those beautiful things around you.
“I’m hoping that the hip will be done soon so I can be ready for the summer again to take off walking.”
Her dog, Jessie, a shih tzu, is champing at the bit to get going too: “She’s like a person — she’d nearly understand every word I say to her. She’s about eight or nine now at this stage. She gets so excited when she sees me getting my runners on — she runs around in rings until I get outside the door.”
For those sitting on the fence around donating organs, Vera says: “Oh please, please sign up for it. It makes such a difference. I got 30 years out of my donor’s lung and then my kidney. It makes such a difference to people. It’s a whole new life to give.”
Organ Donor Awareness Week runs from tomorrow, March 31 to April 7. There are approximately 550 people in Ireland awaiting life-saving transplants. Thanks to the gift of organ donation, almost 3,500 transplanted people in Ireland are enjoying extended life. For further information visit www.ika.ie/card
“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm
— English writer Aldous Huxley
STANDING TALL: ‘I got 30 years out of my donor’s lung and then my kidney. It makes such a difference to people. It’s a whole new life to give,’ says Vera Dwyer.