The box opened up my donor pool
to an external lead that attached to a battery providing the power to keep me alive. My doctor told me the pump worked for 90 per cent of patients with my condition. But I got worse.
My lungs filled with two litres of fluid and I had to be repeatedly put under anaesthetic so my heart could be shocked back to a normal rhythm. Once it took six attempts.
Walking 10 steps exhausted me. I was slowly dying and I was terrified. Each day I wondered how I’d get through the next 24 hours. Normally positive, I was slowly giving up hope.
“A heart will become available,” Mum kept reassuring me. But she was as scared as I was. The one positive thing was that thanks to a new invention I had a better chance of getting a heart. The hospital had the TransMedics Organ Care System (OCS) and all the doctors and nurses were really excited about it.
Normally, donor organs were packed in ice and transported in what was basically a cool box, like the one you’d use for a picnic. But the organs deteriorated quickly. And Australia is a big country; hearts could have to travel long distances to the patients who need them.
“A heart flown from any further away than Adelaide or Alice Springs, which would take about three and half hours, won’t survive to be used in Perth,” a doctor told me. “But an organ placed in the OCS is kept beating with transfused donor blood for up to eight hours, just like a living heart.” It sounded like science fiction – a heart beating in a box. But it opened up most of Australia as a donor pool, giving me more chance of receiving one. All I had to do was stay alive long enough but each day I was getting sicker. Soon I was virtually bedridden, too weak to move.
Three weeks after the open-heart surgery my specialist came to see me in my hospital bed. “We’ve got a heart for you,” he smiled. I looked at him, stunned. This was my chance. I called Mum – she screamed, then cried. I was simply humbled. It was an overwhelming gift of life. I thought of the family who’d made the incredibly brave decision to donate the heart of their loved one.
“What must they be going through?” I wondered tearfully. It was incredible that people could be so giving to a stranger.
Early the next morning I went into another eight-hour operation. I was a bundle of fear and nerves – it had been only a few weeks since my last open-heart operation. I knew anything could go wrong and there was a chance I might not wake up. But I had hope too. I was young, I wanted to live, and for some reason, I just knew this donor heart could save me.
Mum, my stepdad and my big brother Terrance were there when I came round. I burst into tears, relieved I’d made it. Pain sliced through my chest but the painkillers helped, as did the knowledge that now I had a chance to live. “I’m just so happy,” Mum cried, holding me. “You’re going to be OK.”
The doctors were pleased with how the operation had gone. “You’re here because of the OCS,” one of them said. “You’re the first person in the Southern Hemisphere to benefit from it.”
I was shocked. My heart had probably come from interstate. With it beating inside me, I felt strong, and five days after the op I was walking.
Slowly, every day, I got a little bit stronger and after three weeks I was discharged. I went back to college to finish my diploma and to the gym to get fit. I feel great now. Last month I took part in a fundraiser 8km walk for the West Australian Heart Foundation.
Many times I’ve tried to write a letter thanking the family of my organ donor, but I can’t find the words. ‘Thank-you’ doesn’t seem enough. Without a heart transplant I would have had just weeks left to live.
I’ll always be in awe of the technology that saved my life and the courage of the donor family. Better than most, I know life can be short and so I intend to get the most out of every single day. It’s the least I can do in return for the gift I’ve been given, the best one of all – life.