IT’S not often that you can say that two fry-ups were just what the doctor ordered, but when Kate Ball was recovering from a heart transplant, hospital staff were only too happy to see her wolf down the double dinner.
Kate, from Marchmont, was only 19 when she was rushed to the top of the transplant list after developing cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart.
She had first become aware that something was amiss when she began to suffer from tiredness and shortness of breath, but had initially put this down to her busy work and social life as a second-year Scottish literature and sociology student at Edinburgh University. However, when she began to vomit a foamy substance, her GP referred her to hospital and the condition was diagnosed.
After attempts to treat her with drugs failed and she suddenly collapsed, Kate spent only eight days waiting for the organ which would save her life.
Now 31, she says: “I was kept in intensive care for the first 24 hours afterwards. I was so drugged up it’s hard to be sure now what I actually remember and what people told me about that time. My mum said when I first woke up with the respirator in I kept signalling that I wanted something to drink. They had to wait for the nurse to come and when she took the tube out I apparently asked if they had any Jack Daniels, so they knew I was OK!
“You’re on so many painkillers, steroids and immunosuppressants, I was taking countless pills. The steroids really kicked in after about a day and they make you need to eat like mad, so I found myself scoffing two fry-ups in a row at about 4am. Obviously it’s important for everyone to eat as healthily as possible, but at that point the staff just wanted me to get my weight and energy levels up.
“I felt absolutely invincible for the first couple of days. You’re so focused on the actual operation that once it’s over you think that’s it, but I was soon to discover there were a lot of hard things still to come.”
Kate – who hit the headlines in the Evening News last week after posing nude with her husband to promote the Live Life then Give Life campaign to sign up new organ donors – remained at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, where she had been taken for her surgery, for a month afterwards.
“I soon came crashing back down to earth. The tablets I was taking made me very nauseous. Then a nurse came to tell me about all the physio I would need to help me walk again and to clear my chest. I told her I didn’t need any help walking, tried to get out of bed and immediately collapsed on the floor because my legs had atrophied. The steroids had also made my face and hands swell up and a fine coating of hair grow all over my body. You’d probably think my appearance would have been the least of my worries then, but things like that are very hard on a 19-year-old girl who’s already feeling very, very isolated.”
After being released from hospital, Kate went back to stay at home in the Borders for three months.
“I remember my dad cried with happiness the first time he saw me running up the stairs to answer the phone,” she says.
About a year after her transplant, Kate was on holiday in San Francisco when she began to feel dizzy. US doctors who examined her concluded that she needed to have a pacemaker fitted to ensure her new heart kept operating smoothly.
“I was able to finish my holiday and go back to the UK for the procedure, which is just done under a local anaesthetic, but I discharged myself from hospital the day after to go and sit my second-year exams at uni. I passed them all, but I soon began to find myself thinking about what was really important and I decided to leave my course not long after that.”
After “dossing about” for a while, Kate trained as a journalist at Napier University. In 2011, she married her long-term boyfriend, Chris, also 31, who works as a cycling coach.
“I had my second pacemaker fitted about a year before I got married –they only last about five or ten years so they’ll probably just continue to replace them as and when. I still have to take immunosuppressant drugs and will have to do so for the rest of my life. I’m currently on about eight a day, which is vastly reduced from the dose I was on originally.”
Kate was never told the identity of the woman who donated her heart to her, but says a day doesn’t go by without her thinking of her.
“I feel very protective of her,” she says. “I know she was a wife and mother, and her life shouldn’t be defined by her death. She was a real person and must have been very much loved by those who lost her. I am eternally grateful for the gift she gave me.”
Chris, who met Kate not long after she had her transplant, says: “When most people think about patients getting transplants they see people lying in hospital beds with loads of tubes coming out of them, but they should really be thinking about what comes after that – all the years they get to spend living out their lives with the people who love them.”
Number on transplant list expected to rise
IN Edinburgh there are 45 people currently on the waiting list for an organ transplant.
There are 259,167 people on the organ donor register in the city, and there have been 34 organ transplants in patients living in Edinburgh since the beginning of April 2012.
Indeed, Lothian looks set to become the first place in Scotland with half of residents signed up to the organ donor register.
But more donors are desperately needed as our aging population, plus an increase in kidney failures, and medical advances mean the number of people on the transplant list is expected to rise steeply.
Only a small proportion of people listed as organ donors die in circumstances where healthy organs can be successfully harvested, making it all the more important that as many people as possible sign up to the Organ Donor Register, and make their wishes known to their loved ones.
Kidneys, heart, liver, lungs, pancreas and the small bowel can all be transplanted. The first successful kidney transplant took place in Boston in 1954, with the first heart transplant, which was performed in Cape Town, following in 1967.
Today in the UK 40 per cent of all transplants are from kidney donors.
Kidneys can also be transplanted from living donors, as it is possible to lead a normal life with just one. Living donors are usually a family member, partner or close friend of the recipient, but if a willing donor is found who does not match the patient it is often possible to set up a “paired donation”, where they are matched with another donor and recipient in the same situation. If more than two pairs of patients and donors are involved this is called a “pooled donation”.
It is also possible to donate tissue such as corneas, skin, bone, tendons, cartilage and heart valves, which can improve or even save the lives of people with eye disease and severe burns.
Bone donations can also help those suffering from bone cancer avoid limb amputation. Tissue donations can still be carried out up to 48 hours after the donor has passed away.
A spokeswoman for NHS Blood and Transplant said: “With around 10,000 people needing an organ transplant in the UK and three people dying every day, it’s vital that people show their support for organ donation by signing up to the NHS Organ Donor Register (ODR) and telling their families about their wishes.
“To sign up to the register visit www.organdonation.nhs.uk or call 0300 123 23 23.”