Nature intended that I should have died back in March of last year.
My heart function had been deteriorating over many months. At only 56 years-of-age I was very ill.
When my Geelong cardiologist referred me to The Alfred Heart Centre clinic the hospital doctors stunned my wife Kelli and I by telling us that I would not be going home that day. Instead they would find a bed for me on the cardiology ward.
I learned much later that they weren’t confident I would have made it back to Geelong alive.
Within days I had been fitted with a mechanical heart. I still have it in my chest today, attached by wires to a small external computer and the batteries which keep the heart pumping.
I’m alive today through some quirk of good fortune. Some people might say that I cheated death.
This 2kg set of batteries and stuff goes everywhere I go.
After a raft of medical assessments, and weeks of hospital recuperation, I was accepted on to the heart transplant waiting list. Learning that I was on that list was a hundred times better than winning lotto.
Mechanical hearts don’t last for ever. And to be honest, they aren’t much fun.
Their cumbersome and extremely restrictive characteristics provoke love-hate emotions. I’m alive only because of my mechanical heart, yet it’s my mechanical heart that stops me, and my family, from doing so many things that most families consider normal.
Mechanical hearts are nowhere as good as the real thing! And they are normally not intended as a long-term solution.
I don’t know when, or if, a donor heart might one day become available for me.
There are no promises for those of us on transplant waiting lists. Nor are hearts, or any donor body organ, allocated on a first-in first-out basis. Need, compatibility and a host of other factors are weighed up by the transplant doctors. It must be an enormously heavy decision-making process.
Across Australia at any time there is up to 1600 people on organ transplant waiting lists, for hearts, lungs, kidneys, livers or pancreas.
Just like me, all of those 1600 people live in hope of a lifesaving transplant.
Years ago, long before there was any notion of me needing a heart transplant, I had registered with the Australian Organ Donor Register.
It seemed the right thing to do at that time. Like many at that time I’d read about the often ground-breaking advances in transplant medicine. It was the late 1960s when the world’s first heart transplant took place in South Africa. The first transplant in Australia was in 1984. There have been many advances since.
Little did I know that years into the future I would myself become a candidate for an organ transplant.
I can’t explain in words the conflicted thoughts about my possible transplant that are rattling around in my head: I could benefit from someone else’s misfortune, but also from their immense generosity.
It’s true, we Australians are generous. Research shows about 80% of us are prepared to ‘donate life’, by becoming an organ and tissue donor. Sadly, despite their generous intentions, many of those people have not taken the step of formalising that decision by placing their name of the Australian Organ Donor Register.
And about 30% of people have not discussed their commitment to be a donor with their immediate family. Having this ‘family chat’ is equally important, because even with your name on the donor register the doctors will still seek your family’s consent.
Of the Australians who do know the donation decision of their dying loved one, more than 90% of family members uphold that decision when approached by doctors.
Contrary to popular myth, there is no age limit on being a donor. People of all ages, including those in their 70s and 80s, have saved the lives of others.
It might also surprise you that less than 1% of patients who die in hospital are suitable as organ donors. Suitable donors have usually died in an Emergency Department, or Intensive Care Unit, while on a ventilator and from a sudden and unexpected cause.
Last year 378 organ donors donated to 1117 transplant recipients in Australia. Of those transplants 83 were hearts.
It’s statistically unlikely that you, or others reading this blog, will ever become an actual organ donor. The Australian organ donation rate is about 16 donors per million people.
It’s even more unlikely that any decision you make about organ donation would benefit me. So, my appeal to you today is not one made out of self interest.
Rather, like me, you may one day find that you, or a member of your family, are potentially on the receiving end of a donor gift that you were never anticipating needing.
During DonateLife Week, coming up in August, may I suggest you consider the three-Ds:
A decision to donate life is the ultimate gift. And you never know when someone’s gift may benefit you.
DonateLife Week is 2 – 9 August in Australia. www.DonateLife.gov.au Twitter – @DonateLifeToday #DonateLife #organdonation #havethechat