The Courier-Mail - QWeekend
PUSHING HIMSELF TO THE LIMIT
Even his doctors are amazed he’s still alive. But after leukaemia, a lung transplant and a double hip replacement, Damien Thompson is preparing for the Transplant Games.
Damien Thompson bares the scars of his surgeries; and, above, with mum Debbie after
his double lung transplant in 2017. at Kirwan, going to the gym five times a week, saving to buy a house – when life as he knew it stopped.
A throbbing, “heavy” pain that started in his lower back, progressed up his spine to his chest. He went to the pharmacy and bought vitamins, he tried to sleep it off, but on Father’s Day 2010, he walked, shaking and in immense pain, into the emergency department of Townsville General Hospital. A blood test revealed his white blood cells were “through the roof’’ and he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), an aggressive form of blood and bone marrow cancer.
“I was very active and fit, 10 foot tall and bulletproof. For something like that to come along, it was shocking to everyone,” Thompson
I WAS 10 FOOT TALL AND BULLETPROOF. FOR SOMETHING LIKE THAT TO COME ALONG, IT WAS SHOCKING TO EVERYONE
fry. You are strapped in, you can’t move and you are there for half an hour on one side, then they turn you around and do the other side. This happens twice a day, for three days in a row.”
Acute effects of his chemotherapy and radiation – aside from vomiting, diarrhoea and losing his hair – left Thompson with a burnt tongue and oesophagus and he needed to be fed intravenously for almost two weeks.
Most seriously, he developed a dangerous auto-immune condition called acute Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD), triggered when the transplanted donor immune cells began attacking his body and organs.
Thompson’s new immune system attacked his skin “so I looked like a burns victim” and, most worryingly, the disease attacked his lungs, causing fibrosis (similar to scar tissue) that leads to a build up of connective tissue and, eventually, organ failure. This is why he needed a double lung transplant in June 2017.
The cocktail of drugs and treatments to keep him alive also caused the femoral heads of his hips to “turn to dust”, making walking agony and resulting in his double hip replacements.
He has undergone cataract and laser surgery to his eyes, surgeries to tighten the top of his stomach to control serious reflux and to his sinuses. He has had his lifetime quota of radiation – including ultraviolet radiation from the sun – and can only have light on his skin for 20 minutes before 8am.
He has had to retrain his brain to walk because the nerve connection between his ears and eyes was destroyed by chemo, affecting his balance. For a year he could only walk without falling over if he watched his feet.
“The time after my bone marrow transplant and before my lung transplant was a huge struggle,” Thompson says. “I couldn’t do day-to-day activities, I could only just shower myself and walk to the couch but that was it.
“I was walking around with a wheelie walker because of the pain in my hips. And I couldn’t breathe. But I had to keep moving because if I didn’t I would build up fluid in my lungs or get pneumonia and die.
“To keep myself motivated and going, I’d walk around Kangaroo Point at least once a day with my wheelie walker and just hope I
just the will to live. There’s so much to do and I suppose I am very competitive and I don’t shy away from a challenge.
“After my lung transplant, I was on a walker and just had to bear the pain. It taught me a lot in terms of mentally controlling my situation.
“Yes, there was a lot of pain but I’d focus my attention on my toe or wrist and divert my attention away. And keep walking.”
Dr Doug Wall, 51, Thompson’s cardiothoracic surgeon who performed his double lung transplant at Prince Charles Hospital, says Thompson is one of only a handful of patients who have also undergone bone marrow transplants from cancer treatment.
“There are not many patients like him,” Wall says. “He’s had a lot of things that have tried to kill him and he has defied the odds many times.”
“If you look at the outcomes for everything he’s gone through – his leukaemia should have got him.
“Then having a bone-marrow transplant comes with a huge risk. He had a good chance of not making it then.
“Despite that, he fronts up for a double lung transplant, another big life-risk event, and he gets through that.
“You might call it luck but he has made his own luck. He works hard to keep himself well. He’s doing a lot to help himself.”
One of Thompson’s resolutions is to do something
every day that makes him uncomfortable, to “remind myself that I’m alive”.
Like doing this Qweekend interview and photo shoot, speaking at Rotary Clubs to raise money, or being bold and ringing his favourite comedian Dave Hughes and asking him to be involved in an event for his Chimera Legacy Foundation charity. (Hughes agreed and flew from Melbourne for the 2019 event, called Comedy for a Cure, that raised $20,000 for GVHD research.)
Thompson is ambitious and determined for his charity to make a difference. He is developing a virtual reality program for patients to help explain their disease and treatment through simulations that will in turn reduce their stress.
He wants a national roll out of the technology
Damien Thompson at Fitness First gym; and at left, with QIMR Berghofer’s Dr Siok Tey, comedian Dave Hughes and MC Mike Goldman at Comedy for a Cure in 2019. and is in discussions with Icon, Australia’s largest dedicated provider of cancer care.
He also wants to make a difference with the documentary. Filmmaker and director Gustavo Diaz, who contacted Thompson after Comedy for a Cure, has filmed him in many locations – in Townsville where he grew up, at his old school, on Magnetic Island where he goes to relax (and where he isolated when there were heightened COVID-19 fears), at his gym at Fitness First in Brisbane’s CBD where he works out to “prepare for my next hospital admission”.
His family, friends and doctors have been interviewed as well as comments sought from groups such as QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, DonateLife, Transplant Australia and Lifeblood, a branch of Australian Red Cross.
One of his closest friends, James Vedelago, 33, of Newstead, who has known Thompson since they were in Grade six, says his friend is a person who “always sees the up side”.
“Damo is really positive. He’s a larrikin … even with all the things he’s gone through, or having his chemo, he can still have a joke,” Vedelago says.