Four years ago, I received a letter from the father of the man who saved my life. It’s a moment I will never forget.
My best friend was visiting from France and we were sitting in the kitchen with my family, having breakfast. The doorbell rang and my mum went to answer it, returning with a letter addressed to me.
“Probably a hospital letter,” I joked – as this is usually the only kind of mail I get. Little did I know, it would be one of the most precious gifts I would ever receive.
I opened the white envelope and read the words on the page: “Your donor family has decided to contact you. We have enclosed the letter.”
And there between a fold of paper was a handwritten note from the father of the man who gave me his heart.
But allow me to explain how I ended up here – living with someone else’s heart inside my body.
I was born with a serious and complex heart condition but, despite my parents’ initial fears, grew up as a relatively healthy, active little girl.
I had my first surgery at six months old and then my first open heart bypass surgery at two. But other than attending the hospital for frequent check-ups and taking daily medications, I was able to do most of the things my friends could.
However, when approaching my 10th birthday, my health began to decline. I had to stop doing the things I loved like swimming and dancing and it generally became harder for me to get through the day without experiencing breathlessness or fatigue. My heart was deteriorating.
It was decided that I would have a third surgery – and a big one at that. A surgeon flew in from America to assist and it had never been done on a child my age before. With the aim to improve my health and quality of life, they operated on me in April 2010.
Unfortunately, my weak heart couldn’t cope with the changes that had been made to it and I had a cardiac arrest soon after. I underwent another operation two days later but it was once again unsuccessful and I ended up in end-stage heart failure, on full life-support.
I spent four months in the intensive care unit, so sick that a number of times, my family prepared to say goodbye to me for the last time. The doctors tried endless treatments and medicines to keep me alive but in the end, there was only one option: a heart transplant.
I was at the top of the UK children’s urgent waiting list for a month before my gift arrived. The painstaking surgery took 12 hours and I had another cardiac arrest – but the amazing team of surgeons and medical professionals were able to revive me.
I spent another three months on life support and my road to recovery was a long and bumpy one. I was finally allowed home just before Christmas after spending nine months in hospital – something that my family, at times, never thought would be possible.
I had been given the gift of life by an unknown stranger. But who?
When you receive an organ transplant from a deceased donor, they don’t tell you much – if anything – about who they are as to respect their family’s privacy. But sometimes you’re given a rough age or non-identifying details like where they were from.
All we were told is that he was a middle-aged man who suffered a brain injury. Nonetheless, I have lived every day since with him in my thoughts.
Fast forward eight years to the day I received the letter. It is rare amongst the transplant community for us to have contact with our donor families, but most of us write letters of thanks to them – which the family don’t have to accept.
And now, here I was, with this invaluable piece of paper in my hands.
My donor’s father told me some brilliant details about his son’s life and, significantly, the thing I now hold dearest to me: his name.
For the first time I was able to imagine my donor as a person, not just an unknown entity. A man who had a job and hobbies and family. Words can’t explain what an honour it was to learn even just a little about my hero’s life.
Needless to say, I cried. My mum cried. My friend even cried. And now, periodically, when I need a little boost, I go back to that letter, cry a little more, and remember the reason I am here today. There’s no motivation like it.
Since my heart transplant, I went on to finish school, graduate university and am now pursuing my dream career as a journalist. I have travelled, made friends, memories and appreciate every second I get to live.
I am determined to make the most of my second chance at life, if not for me, then for my donor.
I’ve had a host of other health issues since my heart transplant, including a kidney transplant – this time from my Mum – and cancer. I also live with a permanent disability in my feet after suffering severe nerve damage caused by my long illness.
However, to this day, I still marvel at the fact I have someone else’s heart beating in my chest. Not only have I been gifted with a second chance, but also with a unique appreciation for life.
All because of one heroic act by a family and their son. I guess you really could say I have the heart of a hero.