Bob Brehl writes about the emotions of seeing his cousin go through a successful heart transplant. Photo courtesy of Pfree2014, Wikimedia Commons

Modern medical miracle brings family joy

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  • September 22, 2016

Each year, there are more than 5,000 heart transplants around the world — that’s about 14 every single day.

There’s probably one going on right now somewhere in Canada; and if not, then there will be one tomorrow or the next day.

The incredibly complicated life-saving surgery has become commonplace in today’s world. After signing the donor portion on our driver’s licence, most of us would likely not give it a second thought; until it hits home.

That happened the other day when I got a call telling me my first cousin, Anne Marie Switzer, was on her way to Toronto General Hospital for a heart transplant. As I listened to her brother tell me about what was unfolding and that the operation would last eight to 10 hours (it was actually more than 12 hours), a strange feeling came over me: this was incredibly good news, but also very scary, especially with Anne Marie’s history.

“I know what you mean,” her brother said. “The entire family is on pins and needles. Anne Marie is really excited there’s a match for her and that’s what we’ve got to focus on.”

She was born 50 years ago with a bad heart. Indeed, she was one of the first babies to undergo a procedure known as the “Mustard Operation” from world renowned pioneering heart surgeon Dr. William Mustard. Now common and used worldwide, the “Mustard Operation” corrects a complex inborn error in “blue babies” in which the arteries and veins to and from the heart are switched so that they connect with the wrong heart chambers.

I received that call on a Wednesday afternoon. After Anne Marie arrived at hospital, more tests were performed to determine 100-per-cent if the heart was a match for her. Once that was completed, the heart was “harvested” and the transplant began at 3 a.m. Thursday. We got word late that afternoon that it was successful.

The words to describe her immediate family (and extended family) would be joy, relief and tempered celebration. She most definitely wasn’t out of the woods, but she survived and her vitals were good. Within 72 hours, she was conscious and a couple days later she was off the ventilator and barking orders at nurses.

At this, one of her brothers issued an e-mail bulletin to the family: “Good news. It sounds like Anne Marie is cranky!” It was at this point when celebration became full-borne.

And it was also about this time when I started thinking about the symbiotic relationship of families when it comes to transplants: grief and giving on one side; and joy and thanks on the other.

Health professionals think about this a lot, too. The surgeon, for example, was not at liberty to tell Anne Marie’s family anything about the donor such as age, sex or anything at all.

After several weeks, Anne Marie’s family will be able to send a thank you to the donor’s family through an intermediary. The other family can agree to accept the message or not. The other family is usually curious about where their loved one’s heart went and will likely respond, hospital officials said.

Sometimes, though, they want to remain anonymous and, in that case, Anne Marie and the rest of us will never know who the heart came from.

One thing is certain: the heart has found a good home. Anne Marie is a fighter and has been all her life. As one doctor said: “For the first time in 50 years, she has a good, strong heart.”

And she’ll make the best of it, I’m sure.

The new heart sure didn’t affect her sense of humour. At my request, I asked one of her brothers to ask her if she’d mind if I wrote about her story and use her name. She said she didn’t mind because I “did a pretty good job with Ted and Hazel,” referring to books I wrote about the lives of Ted Rogers and Hazel McCallion.

Anne Marie’s fight is hardly over. For example, following transplant up to two-thirds of heart recipients develop anxiety and/or depression during the first post-transplant year, according various medical institutions web sites.

The longest-surviving transplant recipient was Englishman John McCafferty at 33 years. But I’ve got a feeling Anne Marie is aiming to knock McCafferty out of the Guinness World Records book one day.

She’s also a really good reminder to sign your donor card — not just for the heart, but all organs — and make sure your immediate family knows your wishes.

Although there are 5,000 heart transplants a year, there are upwards of 50,000 people worldwide in need of a heart transplant, according to the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation.

(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at bob@abc2.ca or @bbrehl on Twitter.)

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