Organ donation: 'I think you've got my heart'
There are some incredible stories on this website. James Baxter's is one of the most heart-felt. Guaranteed to take your breath away. And make you think.
I was in hospital for a check-up. It was six months after my heart-lung transplant. I got chatting to the bloke sitting next to me in the waiting-room. It turned out Peter had had a heart transplant too. I asked him when. 'About six months ago,' he said.
I took a deep breath. 'What date?' I asked. He told me. 'Me too,' I said. And for a moment we sat looking at each other in a stunned silence. 'I think you might have my heart,' I said. It's not something you say everyday, is it?
To understand James's amazing story, we need to go back a little. Like about five babies every week in the UK, James, 36, was born with cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic disease which clogs up the lungs with a thick mucus and damages the digestive system making it hard to breathe and eat.
As a child the CF didn't affect me too much but that all changed about the time I went to university. When I went to Uni at the age of 18 I was walking around comfortably. By the time I finished teacher training at the age of 24 I was practically bed-ridden and on oxygen full-time. Teaching was obviously out of the question and I was very ill.
I already knew that a heart lung-transplant was a possible last resort. Now the doctors said that without I probably wouldn't make my 28th birthday. I'd been expecting it but it was still not a nice thing to hear. The whole thing is complicated and made far more stressful, of course, by the fact that there is not a heart or a lung available off the shelf. You have to wait for them to become available. And that doesn't happen everyday, either. I got the call in January 2001, aged 27.
Why did James need a heart lung transplant when CF only affects the lungs? At the time, medical science was such that a lung transplant alone was far less likely to succeed than a joint heart-lung. As a result his own perfectly healthy heart became available for transplant. Today lung transplants are more common.
I was lucky. The organs that became available were good, the surgery was a success and my body accepted them. Apparently the first time I came round after surgery I asked from some ice cream but I can't remember that. I had a few breathing problems but it was all routine post-transplant stuff. It was at one of these follow-ups that I met Peter.
It was big shock for him - people assume a heart donor is dead. It was an amazing day, a lovely day. We've become friends. But, and it's a tribute to the success of heart-transplant surgery today, we don't see each other as much as we'd like as we're both married and both have full time jobs and Peter has two kids. I'm godfather to his son Henry.
Today I'm probably fitter than most of the people I work with. I work in sales work at a garage that deals with London taxis. I won Gold in badminton at the 2009 transplant games. The future looks good. I'm told the longest heart transplant survivor in this country is 27 years post-op. And of course, the surgery and the post surgical care have improved a lot in that time.
But the real hero of this story is not James or Peter. Although they are very brave men, they're both still here today thanks to a young man from Wales who died in a road traffic accident. It was his heart and lungs - donated by his parents - that were given to James. Neither will ever forget it.
I've become a bit of a bore on organ donation. Most people have just never thought of it. It's not that they have religious objections or are even a bit squeamish, it's more likely a reluctance to accept their own mortality. But that's not true. You're far more likely to need an organ than be called on to give one.
The facts are simple: more than 10,000 people in the UK need an organ transplant right now. Of these, 1000 a year - 3 a day - will die before an organ becomes available.
I think having CF - which I still have - has allowed my body to be much more tolerant to extremes. When I was diagnosed with cystic-fibrosis related diabetes earlier this year, I was skiing for a week with a blood sugar levels so low, my doctor said that I should have been dead, let alone skiing and then driving half round the M25 to go and see him when I got back.
I now inject insulin and take 60 pills every day for one reason or another. If there was a gold medal in pill guzzling, I'd be a contender. Every time I take them I'm grateful to that family in Wales who have made my life possible.
- News Story Nov 2009: Organ shortage - three people will die today
- See the NHS's organ donor recruitment ad
- Coughing all over the world: living with cystic fibrosis.
To join the NHS Organ Donor Register, call 0300 123 23 23 or visit www.organdonation.nhs.uk
Page created on January 17th, 2010
Page updated on October 13th, 2010