How I Qualified For The XI World Transplant Games in Australia

by Daniel McCarthy

I was born with a congenital heart defect. As a child I had so many illnesses that even a common cold could develop into life-threatening pneumonia. Because of the defective, faulty pumping action of my tired heart, my lungs were stopped, but I was unaware of the seriousness of my situation believing that the heaviness in my chest to be the norm for someone different, like me. I always wanted to run, but everytime I tried I couldn't breathe. I had to sit down. I soon discovered that I was different from my brothers and sisters.

There were scheduled rest periods daily plus an early-to-bed ultimatum seasoned with extra care, concern, attention, even fussing over my meals from my parents. I was thankful that my siblings never resented such demonstrations of faith, hope, and love. Rather they cared for me in countless small ways, there are nine in the family, four girls, and four boys. They guarded me from the village bullies, and carried me on their dates extending babysitting into their love life with great ease.

I never felt sorry for myself, but I was often sad when I witnessed bikes speeding by, bearing my village "Olympian" brothers off on their adventures, or seeing them roller-skating, risking life and limb for a simple thrill. How I wished I could run or even walk fast with them through the woods and forget my frailty. The closest I came to being the village "Olympian" was when there was a skipping craze and I was designated 'Holder-Supreme'. One end of the rope was tied to a tree and I maneuvered the other while I released the village parents from their troublesome offspring for the whole of one hot summer.

My father loved the GAA and through him I became their mascot for the games. I was delighted to celebrate wins, to hold aloft the winning trophies which my father would fill with beer and would give me sips. One of my pals was the best hurler in the parish. Even at the age of six he gave me great hope that I too would some day fly across a wide expanse of green and hear the roar of the crowd cheering me home, shouting "MAN OF THE MATCH."

"To bypass the problem is not to eliminate it," Dr. Christian Barnard has said.

Dr. Barnard, whom I met in Amsterdam one year after my first operation, pioneered the heart transplant surgery which has proven successful. Would such a process eliminate my problem? I had a corrective operation for tricuspid valve atresia. Possessed by an optimistic outlook and an expectation of many years of good health, I was a good candidate for recovery. This was my best shot at survival; I was young, only thirteen years old.

The operation took eight hours and I was in and out of consciousness for days. A priest, who is a friend of the family, came and blessed me. I spent the first two days under the capable supervision of a team of specially trained nurses in intensive care, was on a ventilator for seven hours, had a blood transfusion in one arm and a drip in the other. Drainage tubes protruded from me everywhere and I looked like "The creature from the black lagoon." Yes the catheter had its function too. Medication relieved the pain from the sternum and legs. I functioned as part of a mechanical system of checks and balances for the first few days, I gritted my teeth and envisioned the green grass singing. I was determined to make it home with a smile on my face.

On the day that I was discharged from hospital, I felt really well. I could walk quickly without my breathing becoming laboured. It was a new lease of life, a new beginning. Armed with mountains of advice from my doctors and nurses and full of hope for leading a normal life, I arrived home to find that summer had stolen over the landscape and the trees and grass were greener than I remembered. The lake seemed bluer and I could now swim in it. My adolescent years had begun. I fished from the riverbank, became more and more interested in the GAA; organised darts matches and quizzes with my father, and socialised with my peer group in the village.

The local community was delighted with my progress and supported me, in prayer, in my various endeavours. I remember when my first Holy Communion friend, Mickey Lewis won the 200 metres at the school sports and the excitement when the Fleming girls were chosen to run for Ireland. I WAS HAPPY FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE.

Between the ages of thirteen and twenty one, I enjoyed the challenge of educational processes despite the fact that I suffered several health setbacks each year. I was aware of my weakness all the time and my heart hurt under any stress. When I walked a lot in clement weather I felt less nervous. But I also knew that I was unequipped for adulthood. The day the Bishop came, the village was decked with flags, the atmosphere was joyfull especially with my family, friends, and neighbours who despite all predictions knew I had lived to confirm my own secret triumph and a special gift anticipated.

On my 18th birthday I realised that small tinglings, shortness of breath, a high colour, swollen legs, and kidney infections, all added up to a lot of trouble for a heart patient. I talked to my doctor who agreed that the signs were increasingly worrying and that I might have to consider a transplant. I was stunned when my doctor told me that it was my final hope as I had severe heart failure.

Mv 21st birthday party was a nightmare, I felt so ill. I could not eat a slice of my cake. I looked emaciated and could barely hold up my head to appreciate the good wishes of my family, friends, and neighbours. I felt there was no hope of a suitable donor and had fallen into despair. I heard my mother say they helped me blow out the candles and wished as one that my 21st year would bring me a new heart. My father had died, gone to God, of a massive heart attack by this time.

I carried a beeper, and the call came from the Mater Hospital that a heart was available. I felt relief. However anxiety came on the road to Dublin. Fears and doubts crowded in and I felt afraid, really afraid for the first time. Time was of the essence and I was whisked as fast as lightening from the special Cardiac Nurse to the waiting Heart Specialist. My new heart was waiting for me all the while. "Thank you God," I mentally uttered and I burst into tears at the trauma of it all. I knew that my life's blood would be circling around me as the transplant was performed, that I would be kept alive artificially until the incredible miracle would be realised. I knew that my life was in the hands of a man I had often seen drinking tea and smiling, a mere mortal of a man, an instrument of God, a cardiac surgeon named Dr. M.C Neligan, who was assisted by a team and undoubtedly by God.

To say I know what fear is would be an understatement. My transplant would teach me the meaning of life and for me that's knowing how to die. I would never be afraid again. I have gained much insight into all the conflicting emotions I experienced immediately after my successful heart transplant through reading and medical counseling. On my return home, I realised that the heart I carried within me was the gift of another, now gone to God. Out of death came life for me and I will never cease to be grateful for that fact. I felt quite angry that someone had to die to let me live. I decided to campaign for organ donorship in Ireland and used my own experience as a jumping point.

I devoted my new energy to constant fund-raising for the coronary care units in Cork and Dublin. This helped me cope with the side effects of excess weight from high powered medication and enabled complete convalesence. Besides little did I know that I would be consorting with sporting stars, "Bowling" Bishops, Lord Mayors, and European and American readership.

A second miracle took place when I decided to meet my donor's parents and family. A great weight had been lifted from my new heart when I experienced their immense joy that I was alive and that the death of their teenager not only gave life to me but to others who had received organs. They had gained a son in me and I would live up to my responsibility to make my life work "to make a difference, to set the world on fire with the flame of loving accomplishments from my new heart.

As my body healed I began to walk daily and to work out as gently as possible. An ordinary life was not enough in the immediate aftermath of my transplant. Newspapers gave headlines and glowing reports of my successes and accomplishments in the ensuing years. I had a series of feats at the European Heart Transplant Games in Helsinki and had taken part in the Games in Amsterdam. Among entrants from sixteen countries, I reached the semi-final of the badminton doubles and acheived fourth place in the 5 mile walk in a field of three hundred competitors. To acheive such a success so soon after my transplant was undreamed of. The green grass was singing again and I was on air for the whole summer with a hero's welcome, a celebratory cake, and a party that lasted all night.

The local GAA organiser congratulated me and offered me a chance to take part in the local Football Sevens, a longtime drea of mine. I was a matchwinner for the Aghada Sevens, held on home ground, at picturesque Rostellan. As I had smashed home the victory goal, the local crowd roared in appreciation. Friends and neighbors gathered around to hoist me on their shoulders. The sun shone on my victory and I remembered Helsinki. Dreams do come true as did that one I had on the operating table.

I have received numerous presentations from the GAA and darts clubs: the outstanding young persons award, the Junior Chamber National Winner '96, Midleton 90's Festival Person of the Year Award '95, East Cork Darts Clubman of the year - three years in a row, and Mayor of Lower Cork Harbour '96-'97. One of the highlights of all highlights of my journey with my new heart was the publication of my book entitled: " My new heart," with a preface by Dr. Maurice C. Neligan, cardiac surgeon, edited by Suzanne O'Shea, first published by Litho Press Co., Midleton Co. Cork.

Needless to mention I owe a great debt of gratitude to numerous persons who have so carefully, patiently, courageously, religiously, and professionally brought me to this day. You know who you are and so does God. A heartfelt thank you. Though my new heart has given me a window into the 21st century, to live and breathe easily each day is sufficient for me. I have learned acceptance and having fought all my life to live, I know that life is not for the fainthearted. So here I am proud to have the opportunity to represent Ireland in the prestigious XI World Transplant Games in Australia in 1997, hoping for a new experience with an objective of making people more aware of the need for organ donors which offer the gift of life - the greatest prize of all.