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TV review: Heart Transplant: Chance to Live was the best advertisement for organ donation

PUBLISHED: 08:42 17 May 2018

Max before his heart transplant at Freeman Hospital, Newcastle (C) 7 Wonder Productions

Max before his heart transplant at Freeman Hospital, Newcastle (C) 7 Wonder Productions

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This programme highlighted just how in death, we can have the chance to give life. A heartwarming and heartbreaking glimpse into a world all of us hope never to see - the agonising wait for a heart transplant for a second chance at living.

Heart Transplant: A Chance to Live  (C) 7 Wonder Productions - Photographer: Screen grabHeart Transplant: A Chance to Live (C) 7 Wonder Productions - Photographer: Screen grab

It’s rare to see a television programme that you feel might genuinely save lives: this was one of them.

There could be no better advertisement for the Organ Donation Register than lovely gap-toothed nine-year-old Max, who is in desperate need of a new heart – healthy until his last birthday, he contracted a virus which attacked his heart: he has been on the waiting list for a new heart for 161 days.

“Every day I’ve got that nervous feeling. Will it come? Will it happen? Is it today?” he told the camera crew, “I’m just going to keep on waiting until it comes.”

It’s a waiting game for Max, his brother Harry and their anxious, desperate parents. When asked what he worried about most, Harry refused to answer in front of his little brother, worried that he would hear his greatest fear of all, the one that would have broken the hearts of his entire family.

We then met six other patients playing the same terrible game as they waited for heart transplants at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle – from an eight-month-old baby with heart failure to a 56-year-old who wants to live to see his own children have children, a set of anxious people waiting for a second chance at life.

Claire, 34, was born with half a heart. Having gone through numerous operations, her heart can’t take much more and she’s been on the transplant list for 28 days, enough time to marry her sweetheart of eight years, Kelly, in a ceremony on her ward. “I wanted us to have that happy time and I wanted to have it in hospital so we have a positive memory here,” said Claire, who walked down the aisle in her dream wedding gown looking happy and healthy. “She’s my soulmate. My warrior,” said her new wife, after promising to love her for always and eternity.

A heart for Claire is found but her joy is tinged with fear – “all the statistics are rattling through my head” she says, as we discover that every third patient with Claire’s particular medical condition will die: “I’ve planned my own funeral just in case the worst happens. You’ve got to be practical,” Claire told us. We watched her operation, an intricate piece of surgery, and then saw her wheeled back to the ward where her wife waited, and hoped, saying “I wish it was me.”

Throughout, we were reminded that for a heart transplant to take place, someone else has to die, along with other sobering facts: Britain has amongst the worst rates of family consent for donation in Europe, the average wait for a donor heart is 1,200 days and one in six patients don’t survive to receive a new heart.

We were party to discussions in critical care where staff tried to gently suggest donation to the family of a man who had died suddenly in an intensive care unit and whose organs were in perfect condition. Dr Angus Vincent, Critical Care Consultant, said: “we don’t try and coerce anyone, but I would rather these organs went to save someone’s life rather than they were buried or burnt. It’s an animal response to protect the body of someone we love after they’ve died. We have a belief that many people say no and regret it,” he said. The family, as is their right, said no.

As one family’s nightmare began, another saw light at the end of the tunnel: a heart became available for Max and he was taken for surgery. I have no idea how terrifying it must be to kiss your child goodbye before an operation which could either save, or claim, their life but Max’s parents’ dignity was astonishing as he told them he loved them and they left, not knowing if they’d ever see him alive again. The images of a little boy holding on to his beloved toy monkey and crying in fear will not leave me anytime soon.

A week after her transplant, Claire – who earlier in the week had given a weak thumbs up to the camera – began to suffer multiple organ failure. Tragically, always and eternity didn’t last long for Kelly’s warrior soulmate: her wife was one of the one in three. The man who operated on her said: “There is a famous saying that a surgeon has a private cemetery to which from time to time he goes and prays. In the middle of the night, you sometimes wake up and think about these things.”

Three more of the patients successfully received hearts, one more was still waiting, another tragically died 10 weeks after his transplant. Thank God for Max, then, who has a whole new lease of life to “…annoy my brother and prank my granny and grandpa”. This was a remarkable programme with jaw-dropping access to the operating theatre and music set to the beat of a heart throughout - it was 90-minutes of simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming broadcasting.

* Join the organ donor register here www.organdonation.nhs,uk

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