Moving hearts on a knife's edge
“At the last minute, you hear everything is definitely going ahead, that the organ looks good and literally the [recipient] patient goes directly to theatre.”
Timing is critical. “The heart needs to be in and beating within four hours of it being retrieved from the body which may be 200 miles away,” he says. Ambulance and air crews often come into play.
“Everyone on the night is very aware it’s a very important night for the recipient. It’s their one chance and it needs to go well.”
It’s a very important night for the donor family too of course he says. “What donor families say later is that it helped them in some way in the midst of their tragedy to know the organ was going to literally save someone’s life. And that’s exactly what it does.”
Once they know the heart is close, the Mater team connects the recipient to a machine that takes over the work of the heart and lungs.
“Once we see the donor heart coming through the door, we take out the heart that isn’t working and straight away we start implanting the donor heart,” says McCarthy.
As the heart lung machine is gradually withdrawn, the new heart starts to beat itself. All going well, most patients are awake and talking to their families in two or three days and can be home in about two weeks.
“The whole staff of the hospital get a good lift within a few days of the transplant,” says McCarthy. “Genuinely people are very happy about that in the hospital, which is nice to see.
“Everyone is aware of the other side of it too, the tragic side,” he says.
“This is a huge gift the donor family has given. We are very thoughtful about that.”
While 15 years ago an average of 10-15 transplants a year were performed here, numbers have declined in line with global trends
‘I’m grateful to my donor’
IT WAS January 2011 when 25-year-old Sarah Jordan started to feel unwell. Fit and active all her life, her sudden breathlessness was a mystery.
“I had kind of flu-like symptoms, I was cold and tired. I had swelling in my ankles and legs and I was struggling to walk from the office to the car. At home it was getting harder to climb the stairs,” she recalls.
When three weeks of antibiotics failed to work, she sought the opinion of another GP. She was referred straight to AE at Cork University Hospital where tests revealed heart failure.
“I was shocked, I didn’t know what to expect,” says Jordan. Kept in the coronary care unit there for two months, further tests revealed a virus had caused her heart failure.
“The virus attacked the heart muscle and enlarged the right side. It’s known as viral dilated cardiomyopathy,” she explains. “I’d never come across anything like it before. When I was so healthy, I didn’t think it could happen to me. They didn’t know where the virus had come from.”