I recently reached an important milestone…my 25th heart transplant anniversary! In celebration of my recent anniversary, and to recognize National Organ and Tissue Donor Awareness Week (April 20-27, 2014), I would like to share my story.
When I was born with a complex congenital heart defect in the late seventies, my mother was told that I would not survive past early infancy and that she should prepare herself for the worst. However, after several weeks of intense medical attention at the Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre, I was able to return home in a fairly healthy and active condition.
Over the years I would visit the Janeway for checkups as needed, but that was the only medical care required to keep me healthy enough to enjoy a rather normal childhood… that is until I turned nine years old.
At nine years old, my cardiac function declined to the point where I required my first heart surgery. A shunt was placed from my heart to my lungs in an attempt to maximize the amount of oxygenated blood in my body, as well as to lighten the load on my failing heart muscle.
It was shortly after this time that my cardiac surgeon presented the idea of a heart transplant to my family. He explained that the transplant program at the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario was having great success with heart transplants and that this may be my best chance of surviving.
Full of skepticism and fear, my young parents and I visited the London Health Sciences Centre for a transplant assessment in the winter of 1988. By spring, we were told that my condition had deteriorated to the point where a transplant was my only hope. That June, I was placed on the transplant wait list and given a pager to notify my family when a donor heart became available.
I waited four months. However, four months to an eleven-year-old in a strange city, full of doctors, in a big hospital seemed like an eternity.
The burden was also felt by my family as my mother and I were alone in Ontario while my father had returned to Newfoundland and Labrador to continue working.
Near midnight on October 15, 1988, the day before my father’s birthday, I received the call that a heart had become available. I was terrified and excited at the same time. It meant that I would have another dreadful surgery but also that I would soon return home to the family and friends that I missed so dearly. Thanks to my youth, I never once thought about the possibility of not surviving.
The transplant surgery lasted about six hours and, by all reports, had gone very well. My mother recalls the surgeon telling her that my new heart had started beating as soon as they put it in my chest. Many sighs of relief were given by my family and community.
Being so young, I hardly knew the magnitude of the gift of life that I had just received. My thoughts were focused on getting back to school and playing with friends. But over the years, especially on my transplant anniversary, I have taken time to reflect on my experience and the wonderful gift that my donor and his or her family gave me.
It goes without saying that such an enormous gift will always give me faith in humanity and the power of compassion, even in the most tragic times. The fact that this donor’s family found the strength and kindness to save other lives in the midst of saying good-bye to their loved one is one of life’s true beauties.
I am happy to say that in the 25 years following my transplant I have achieved many blessings thanks to the second chance I was given…
Shortly after returning home to Newfoundland my baby brother was born. He has often been thought of, in my mind, as my reward for going through major surgery.
I graduated from high school and completed a university degree.
I got married wearing a dress made by my pediatric cardiac surgeon’s wife (both of whom, along with my cardiologist and family doctor, attended our wedding).
I also completed a diploma in respiratory therapy and have been working with patients of my own for the past 10 years!
While working in critical care in Halifax, I have had the opportunity to see the gift of transplantation from the point of view of the donor, recipient and health care team.
My personal and professional experiences have shown me how a family’s heartache can be eased, even just a little, by the thought that their loved one would live on and give life to others.
If you have not already done so, take the time to discuss your wishes about organ donation with your family and support organ donation by signing your own donor card. ■
The only gift is a portion of thyself.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Special to StoryLine: Crystal Prowse, recipient and advocate for organ and tissue donation.