HAVING successfully undergone a heart transplant about 15 months ago, Derek O’Sullivan has literally been given a new lease of life.
The 41-year-old project manager with a development company is originally from Knocknaheeny, but now lives in St Luke’s with his wife and three-year-old son (he also has a 19-year-old daughter from a previous relationship).
Today, Derek is bright eyed and healthy looking and has never felt better. But he has been through the mill, having been diagnosed with a heart condition 15 years ago.
“I was playing football when I passed out on the pitch,” recalls Derek. “Luckily I came ‘round and after lots of tests, I was told I had SVT (Sustained Ventricular Tachycardia) which is a very fast heart rhythm. Lot of people get VT but mine was sustained. It kept going so I had a defibrillator implant for about 15 years.
“I had to pack in sport and things you take for granted like going up a hill, or any exertion, was suddenly worrisome. You start panicking over things. That went on for a while. But it was fine; I was alive and well. I could go for walks and if I had to, I could go up a hill.”
But after a while, Derek had incidents of VT. His medication was changed and he underwent shocks from a machine. He became out of breath more frequently and he struggled to do mundane tasks.
Consultant cardiologist, Dr Gerry Fahy, who Derek credits with saving his life so many times, diagnosed him with heart failure.
“I had to make some adjustments and be careful of salt and liquids. New medication was introduced. I was very tired and had to go for naps on a regular basis. I hoped every day would continue like that but it didn’t, through nobody’s fault.”
Derek noticed in a photograph that his hands were really black.
“It was like I had no circulation. I hadn’t noticed it before. I contacted Gerry Fahy who admitted me to hospital.”
Derek was subsequently referred to the Mater Hospital in Dublin.
“It was always said that I’d be a good candidate for a transplant. With heart failure, my statistics were fairly bleak. I had a 40% chance of being alive in 12 months, an 8% chance in 24 months and zero chance in 30 months.”
While it was a great relief for Derek to learn that he was a suitable candidate for a heart transplant, it all depends on compatibility.
“They ran a battery of tests on me in the Mater as well as blood tests and fitness sessions. You have to be sick enough to need a transplant but well enough to undergo the operation. I was on exercise bikes which was no fun at all. It’s all so frantic. The initial assessment takes about ten days and your case goes before the transplant board. Luckily, they decided I was a suitable candidate.”
Derek returned to Cork after his assessment and got married to his long term partner. It was a lovely day, with a gathering at Hayfield Manor after the registry office. But Derek had to miss some of it as he needed to rest.
“Ten days after that, I was back at work. I shouldn’t have been but you try and keep going.”
While looking at the plumbing in a house in Aherla, Derek had what the doctors describe as a “catastrophic cardiac arrest”, or a full on heart attack.
“Two paramedics came to the scene. Apparently, they worked on me long after they should have given up on me. They kept me alive and brought me to CUH.
“Again, the team there was phenomenal. They didn’t want me to be moved from CUH but Gerry Fahy arrived in on the Saturday morning like a hero and said ‘This guy needs to go to the Mater’. I was stabilised and taken there. And two weeks after that, a heart became available which was phenomenally lucky.”
That the heart was a match was incredibly fortunate.
Derek said the operation took about five hours. “When I woke up, I hadn’t a clue what was going on because I was so medicated. My first few days were kind of rocky but I came around. My wife tells me that from the point of waking up, I looked different. My colour had come back.”
How did he feel?
“At first, I felt very strange. I had a mixture of relief and guilt. The guilt was because someone had died in order for me to have this chance. It’s a very strange feeling but very common. It passed. I had had counselling prior to the transplant. It helped me massively.”
Before the transplant, Derek was given information on what it would entail.
“They cut open your sternum and put you on a bypass machine. They cut out your old heart and put in the new one and stitch you up.”
Derek is like a new man.
“I’ve started to run again and hills don’t intimidate me anymore. It’s mind-boggling.”
He knows nothing about the donor.
“That is kept entirely anonymous. I am permitted to write a letter to the donor’s family after a period of time, but no names are given.”
A private person, the only reason Derek is going public about his transplant is to encourage people to donate their organs after death. Under the current law, the decision to donate after death resides with the next-of-kin, irrespective of whether the deceased person carried a donor card.
The proposed Human Tissue Bill seeks to introduce a system where a deceased person would have consented to the donation of their major organs unless stated otherwise. This opt- out system was first recommended to the Government 10 years ago. Health minister Simon Harris has said he hopes the legislation will encourage people to discuss organ donation more freely.
“It is my goal to make organ donation the norm in Ireland when people pass away in circumstances in which donation is a possibility,” the Minster said.
“There’s no guarantee that your organs will be suitable,” says Derek. “For me, I’m fine. It was a no-brainer. The heart may as well have been used on someone like me.
There are people who have religious beliefs and that’s fair enough. That’s their prerogative. But if you don’t have beliefs (preventing you from donating your organs), why wouldn’t you? It’s a life-saving chance.
“If it was 20 years ago, I wouldn’t be here now. I would ask people to donate. There are people who have a lot left to give who are struggling with heart failure or kidney failure or whatever the case may be. It’s so easy for the person who’s passing (to donate their organs). It’s of no consequence to them. And having spoken to people who’ve had family members passing on, donating organs (from the deceased) gives them relief. They know their family member was able to help others and give other families a chance.”
Derek, who is enjoying running and cycling, intends to do a large fund-raiser next year, cycling from the Mater to Cork. He is on anti-rejection medication for life, has to be careful not to contract infections, and will never take ice in a drink.
“Transplant patients are susceptible to many things. Colds affect us much harder than others. People don’t realise that if they come out into the public with the flu, it’s not just themselves that are affected but it can be people with suppressed immune systems. You don’t know who you are endangering. You should stay at home if you have the flu.”
Another no-brainer from a man who has been given a much-appreciated second chance.