LIFE really did begin at 40 when Mick O’Shea passed that landmark birthday last summer.
When the Mallow man celebrated his big day on July 11, he thanked his lucky stars that he could look forward to a full, healthy life, after undergoing a successful heart transplant less than a year earlier, in August, 2017.
“My 40th birthday cake was the Tin Man, who wanted a new heart from the Wizard of Oz,” says Mick.
His life took a turn for the worse at the start of the May Bank Holiday two years ago. It was initially a day like any other and Mick, who was looking forward to the long weekend, decided to go for a run after work on the Friday.
“I was fairly fit,” says Mick, who took part regularly in 5km runs and 50km cycles.
But the young man, usually full of beans, felt tired and lethargic that day.
“It felt like I had flu symptoms,” says Mick. “I dosed myself with Paracetamol and I took it easy.
“But later, in bed, I felt like I was drowning, finding it hard to breathe. My lungs filled with fluid.”
Mick was unaware that his heart function had dropped to 30%.
He recalls: “When I was standing up and walking around, I felt better.”
But his health dramatically deteriorated over the weekend and, after tests at Mallow Hospital, he was sent to the Cardiac Unit in CUH. Was he worried then?
“You never think the worst,” says Mick. “The medications relieved the fluid build-up and by the end of the week, I felt I was improving”
But he wasn’t. Mick’s sudden onset of heart failure was caused by myocarditis, a virus which attacks his heart. He was so ill, the medics feared he might not make it to the Mater Hospital in Dublin.
“I was rushed to the Mater under Garda escort,” recalls Mick. “I was revived and put on a balloon pump for three months. I was bed-bound, on the flat of my back, only allowed 1.5 litres of fluid a day, including meds and the drip.
“Being able to have a glass of milk while confined to bed 24/7 was a huge thing. I couldn’t physically eat. My body was basically dying.
“I was taken off the balloon pump on a few occasions to see if the heart would function on its own. But it couldn’t.”
Mick told his mother and his wife, Jen, that it would all be OK.
“It was harder on them,” he says. “Watching and waiting.
“The balloon pump had no effect, which was a major whammy,” adds Mick, who was rapidly getting weaker as his body wasted away under attack from the deadly virus.
He was bewildered and knocked for six.
“The condition was never obvious,” he says . “I had no idea.”
Eventually, he was put on the transplant list for a heart.
“I was rapidly going downhill,” says Mick, who against all odds, kept his spirits up with courage, commitment and positivity.
“The next step was the EMCO machine, a type of life support machine as my heart and lungs couldn’t function independently.
“I woke up in the ICU unit attached by tubes from my neck through my leg attached to the machine.”
He was awake, fully aware of his surroundings, but totally helpless. “The nurses fed me ice-cream” he says.
His physique, strong from his regular fitness regime, collapsed.
“I was down from 80kg to 65kg,” says Mick. “All my muscle mass was gone. I couldn’t wash myself, shower or shave.”
His dignity suffered.
“Four nurses had to roll me over in the bed to change position,” says Mick.
Those 14 days in the ICU were bleak and grim. It was a waiting game of life or death.
“And I was getting weaker,” says Mick.
All the while, his loved ones waited, prayed and hoped.
“Lab tests showed the EMCO didn’t improve things,” says Mick. His world was closing in.
“I was alone in a room with the bed facing double doors and a high window that I couldn’t see out of.”
“I had bad dreams and awful nightmares which were horrific.”
Human contact was important.
“Sometimes, one of the lads from the ward would pop in to see if I wanted anything.
“Some of the patients on the ward in the Mater Hospital came to my 40th birthday party, including the hospital porter, Dave, who became a great friend of mine.”
Mick was facing into a final option: A heart transplant was on the cards.
“The balloon pump was tried again,” says Mick, showing me his scars where the tubes were inserted. “I had one good day and three bad days. I took it one day at a time, I always thought that tomorrow, it would change.”
In July, 2017, back from the ICU unit, Mick was told he was on the transplant list. He was back on the ward, not knowing what the future held, or even if he had a future.
“There were other patients more needful of a heart than I was,” says Mick. “So I wasn’t the first priority.”
The days went by, and Mick struggled to remain positive, willing himself to survive.
“Every day was like Groundhog Day,” he says. “Waiting to be called for a transplant was like torture. I feared I’d lose too much weight and be taken off the list.”
On three occasions, when he was prepped for theatre, his hopes were dashed at the last minute.
“I wanted the person who needed the heart most to be number 1,” says Mick. “It seemed like I was going from 0 to 200 km an hour as I was quickly ‘worked up’ for the transplant operation.”
“It is a lottery to be a match for an organ transplant, depending on weight, blood type, and many other factors.
“My strength was quickly fading. I was very weak. The weight was flying off me — I could barely manage to get 1,500 calories in. It took me half an hour to eat a toasted sandwich. I had no saliva to swallow.”
In August, Mick became the number one priority for a heart transplant. “I was approaching the last hurdle,” he says grimly.
Was he frightened?
“It was a case of fight or flight. The transplant was the only way out; the only way home.”
Lars Nolke, Consultant Cardiothoracic surgeon, worked the magic of his expertise, and on a fine Saturday in August, Mick O’Shea woke up with a different, but healthy, heart beating in his chest.
“Three chest drains and numerous wires and tubes draining the fluid were still there!” says Mick. And so was his resilient spirit.
“I took my first steps after 48 hours,” says Mick. “The first steps in a long time.”
Did he feel any different?
“I felt the thumping in my chest, almost like vibrations. Now my heart function was operating at 60% efficiency, as opposed to 30%.”
Like a more powerful engine?
“Yes! From a one litre engine to a 2.5 litre engine!”
There was still a way to go; but he was edging ever closer to full health. The determined young man had his goals firmly in sight.
“I worked with the physiotherapists,” says Mick. “I sat up in the chair. Then I did one lap, then two laps; then 100 metres. First, I was a bit shaky. For someone who had taken part in 5k and 10k marathons, this was a huge achievement for me.”
After coming so far, Mick intended to go further.
“The physios had plaques every five metres sign-posting counties in Ireland: Galway, Kerry, Limerick...”
Mick walked the length and breadth of Ireland, breathing easy, his heart beating gently.
“I did that two times, three times,” says Mick. He took baby steps towards giant steps.
“I learned about my medications, the dosage and possible side-effects, the various foods and the correct diet requirements.”
He reached his destination.
“I got home in September, 2017,” says Mick. “After months in hospital, I slept in my own bed. I did the stairs. That was huge!”
The road to recovery was rocky in places. Mick didn’t falter.
“There were a few blips,” says Mick. “I developed a clot and there were initial signs of rejection. After 10 days, biopsies showed improvement.”
He had his life back. Now he could get on with it.
“I took 30 minute walks, then a bit longer for 45 minutes,” says Mick, who is now looking forward to a new career as a Personal Trainer Instructor, and is heading to Newcastle in England in August to represent Ireland in the World Transplant Games.
“I took part in the Rebel Run in October, three months post-transplant,” says Mick. “Jen and I took part in Quest Killarney Adventure Race the same month. We finished the course.”
He got his appetite back, savouring the good things in life: fresh air, exercise, and spending quality time with Jen.
“My mother made me a home-cooked stew when I came home from hospital, it was delicious!” he adds.
Mick gradually got stronger. He realises he was one of the lucky ones.
“I got a second chance, thanks to my organ donor,” says Mick. “My whole family got a second chance.
“Families have to say goodbye and say yes to organ donation. I wrote anonymously to my donor, telling them about my achievements and my goals.”
Mick says families should have the potentially life-saving talk about organ donation. “Have the chat,” he says simply.
“I have a life after transplant. “I never ask; why me?
“Every day you get up and out, is a good day. “I am very positive-minded, replacing negative things with positive things.
“I don’t stress about the small stuff. It’s all about family life and living.”
The world is Mick’s oyster now; he intends to honour his donor by seizing life, looking after his donor heart and embracing life, pursuing his passion for fitness.
“What happened to me could happen to anybody. Everyday life was gone in one long weekend. I realise just how precious life is.”
And Mick’s happy smile is straight from the heart.