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A Journey to the Other Side,
Part 2

Stewart Howard

My wife and I moved into a motel in Brisbane until such time as an apartment could be leased. For the sake of convenience, we had picked a location very near the transplant hospital. This led to some tense moments in the weeks that followed.

I received a call from the hospital soon after. "There is a possible donor." This contact came as a complete surprise to Barb and me. We panicked! We hadn't prepared mentally for this eventuality. What should I take to hospital? Where to go? Not knowing what to expect, Barb and I arrived at the hospital in fear and trepidation but with an element of hope. I also felt a deep sense of finality; I had been a control freak in my professional life. I was now in the hands of an unknown group. Would this be the last day of my life? Would I die on the operating table?

False alarm: final tests revealed a mismatch. A wave of relief overwhelmed me. Tonight was not the time of my death! I coughed my way back to the motel, in the misguided and ridiculous glow of not having been murdered on an operating table. My lungs might be severely dysfunctional but they were mine—factory original—and they still worked, some of the time. My wife, on the other hand, was deeply disappointed; her husband was no closer to being treated.

I received a second call from the hospital a few weeks later. Another false alarm. On that occasion the donor organs were determined to be slightly impaired. Let me tell you, these non-events play havoc with your emotions and your mind! Hope, life, death and fear blend into an unpalatable cocktail. I left the hospital in a state of blind confusion.

These close calls, despite the emotional chaos they created, made me register that the specialist team had indeed targeted me as high priority. This was confirmed every time I looked in the mirror, when I would see a withering body straight out of a wartime concentration camp.

Our close proximity to the hospital enabled us to hear and sometimes see the medical helicopters as they flew in and out. I noted that I became tense subsequent to their arrival. Were they carrying patients or, possibly, donor organs? Would I receive another phone call soon after hearing the beat of the chopper blades? Would it be just another cruel false alarm? I grew to loathe the sound and sight of those aircraft.

Soon I was again called by the hospital. "Stewart, there is a possible donor. Would you make your way to the hospital immediately?" I received the news with the enthusiasm of being told that I needed a root-canal filling.

Two weeks later I walked, unaided, out of hospital having becoming the recipient of a new set of lungs. I was now "on the other side". I had survived! And I had stopped coughing. Completely.

So, what was involved in the operation? links imageWell, I had my chest cut open from top to bottom and my rib cage spread wide apart, thereby granting access to my defunct lungs. These were removed and replaced with quality items from a donor. The tricky part was connecting the various blood vessels and airways to the new lungs. The surgeons also temporarily fitted four drain pipes to my chest enabling the extraction of waste fluid that would inevitably build up around the new lungs over the course of the next few days. (These pipes exited the front of my chest and were subsequently connected to vacuum pumps.) Then there were the simple matters of closing the rib cage, wiring my sternum back together and stitching up the large opening in my chest. For the life of me, I can't imagine why I worried prior to the operation; you'd wonder what all the fuss was about!

links imageFast forward: so, here I am, very much alive in January, 2013. Every day is a gift! With the passing of each week, I place a greater significance on a life I have so graciously been given. Once again, I see a sparkle in the eyes of those in my family. This is such a simple thing but one which is so rewarding. I find myself trying harder than ever-even before the onset of my disease-to support, and to demonstrate my love, to family and friends. Life has now become finite and with it, more meaningful. It always was, but I had never registered the notion of my demise until the disease hit. Now every day counts.

links imageWhen you have experienced, first-hand, the risk of losing everything, in particular your life, your perspective changes if you are fortunate enough to survive the crisis. One notable development is now having the clarity of vision to differentiate between that which is important as opposed to that which is not. I feel that I can no longer spend time on the unimportant.

One of the principal surgeons involved in my transplant told me after the successful operation, "You have been given a terrific set of lungs, Stewart. Do not, like some, recede into your home, inside a protective bubble. Get out into the world and use them!" And so I do.

links imageWith increased vigour, I have fully engaged with the various passions of my life. I regularly "go bush" with our camper-trailer together with family and friends. My love of motorcycling sees me riding the highways with renewed joy. When I pick up my guitar, I experience a sense of increased satisfaction (despite my poor playing). I have returned to the golf course together with my wife, loving her company while we play. Swimming and cycling have again taken their place in my exercise programme.

In summary, my appreciation of life has been magnified significantly since the operation. I simply adore living! My friends tell me that it shows on my face. I am frequently found smiling or even chuckling to myself. I see beauty in the simplest of actions or events, for example, when people meet in shopping centres and express their affection towards one another through the simple act of shaking hands or giving a hug. Every time I watch a sunrise, I think of the privilege that I enjoy. Without medical advances over the past 25 years, I would be dead! But I'm not. Importantly, every day I think of the donor, that unknown person, who made this all possible. I wish I could tell them how much their gift of life means to me and my family. Perhaps they know?

Oh, as for retirement, it is not as good as I had hoped. It's very much better!

Part 1 is available at A Journey to the Other Side, Part 1

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose

Stewart Howard is a retired engineer who enjoys golfing with his dear wife, motorcycling where it doesn't snow and wild music on his electric guitar.

1. In hospital post-transplant.
2. 11 weeks post-transplant.
3. Back on the road.
4. Camping at Tully Gorge.