“If I hadn’t got the call, that I was getting organs, I probably wouldn’t be alive right now.”
Cork woman, Isabel Terry, underwent a double, lung and heart transplant in 2017, at the age of 42, after 15 years on the waiting list.
The high-risk procedure was performed at the Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle, in mid-September.
Isabel spent two months in intensive care, having survived multiple complications, including a stroke, cardiac arrest, and kidney failure.
“I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I suffered a heart attack, a stroke, and kidney failure,” she said.
“They lost me a few times on the table, as well, and they had to wait a few days to close me up, so it was a long period where we didn’t know if I’d make it.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in, yet, to be honest. It’s so much to come to terms with and I’m just so happy to be alive,” she added.
Isabel, from Bishopstown, suffered from pulmonary atresia, a birth defect of the heart’s pulmonary valve, and was on bottled oxygen 24 hours a day, prior to the transplant.
In 2003, while in the care of the Mater Hospital in Dublin, she was first told she would need a heart transplant.
She received five unsuccessful transplant calls between 2003 and 2009, by which time her condition had worsened and she required a heart and double-lung transplant.
Isabel’s care was transferred to Freeman Hospital, and she finally received the phone call in September that she thought she might never get.
“I honestly thought it wasn’t going to happen and that’s a bit of a scary thing to take in,” she said.
“When I visited them, months before the surgery, I said to them, ‘if you keep me on the list, I will not let you down, I will fight to make sure I make it and I won’t give up’.
“In the end, they said that my resilience won them over and they became more optimistic about my chances,” she added.
That phone call has changed her life.
“I’m so glad to have it all behind me. It’s such a relief, because I didn’t think it would happen,” she said.
“It’s a long road to recovery, now,” added Isabel, who is four months into a year-long rehab.
“It doesn’t feel like four months, though, because of the recovery time I spent in hospital.
“I’ve only really been out four weeks or so and I’m still tired and in a bit of pain, but I couldn’t be happier,” she said.
Despite contracting a chest infection, just weeks after returning home, Isabel is in good spirits.
“I feel good. I’m tired, but I’m feeling good,” she said.
“When I was recovering in hospital, I’d try to improve a little bit every day.
“One day, I’d get out of bed without help. The next, I’d go for a short walk, but I’d get tired very easily,” she added.
“Now that I’m home, I’m continuing that recovery, trying to walk further up the stairs every day.
“It’s very tough, but I’m going to keep working hard.
“I can’t wait until I can reach the top without help, without getting tired,” said Isabel.
“It’ll be an emotional moment, but a fantastic one.”
However, Isabel said that some of her 30-strong surgery team were reluctant to give her the organs, because of her age and the high-risk surgery.
“I heard, after, that a few of the people on my surgery team were reluctant to give me the organs and that there was some really heated discussions on it,” she said.
“The ones who wanted to give them to me said that I seemed resilient and would fight, so they decided to take the chance and, thankfully, I’ve come out the other side.
“It was nice to prove the people who believed in me right,” she added.
“Especially after suffering cardiac arrest, a stroke, and kidney failure during the surgery, they were shocked I’d pulled through and at how fast I was recovering.
“They said to me after, that, another few weeks and I wouldn’t have got the organs, and that the person who organised the plane to Newcastle for me essentially saved my life.” Isabel said that the success of her surgery has encouraged doctors in the Freeman to take on riskier procedures.
“They were so surprised at the fact that I survived and how well I was recovering, that I think it led them to be more open to riskier procedures,” she said.
“Before me, they hadn’t completed that risky a procedure at the Freeman in years, but, just weeks after me, a woman in a similar situation had a transplant like mine.
“It’s great for medicine and for people like me,” she added.
As well as brave, skilled surgeons and medical staff, Isabel said the importance of organ donations cannot be overstated.
“An organ donor saved my life and organ donations saves lives around the world every day,” she said.
“It’s so important for people to have the conversation, that if they want to donate their organs, they tell their loved-ones or next of kin,” Isabel says.
“It’s equally important, if the person says ‘no, I want to keep my organs’, and that’s fair too, I completely respect that,” she added.
“But organ donation is so important. It saves lives every day, and even if you have an organ-donor card, stamped and everything, your next of kin can actually say ‘no, I don’t want their organs taken’, so it’s vital to have the conversation,” she added.
“There was a baby in the Freeman, at around the same time as me, who needed a heart and he got it, at only a few weeks old, and I think he’s doing fine now and to see that is just amazing,” she said.
Organ donation has provided Isabel with a future.
“If I hadn’t received the organ donation last year, I’d be in the ground,” she said.
“It gives me the opportunity, now, to look forward to a future that I didn’t think I’d have.
“I might go and try to find work,” said Isabel, who has a degree in beauty therapy and previous experience in retail and sales.
“Or I might go back and do a course,” she added.
“I’ve so many options now, and I’m eternally grateful to have them.”
Isabel has been charting her journey on her Facebook blog, ‘Life on the List,’ in the hope of inspiring other people and of raising awareness about the importance of organ donation.
“I’m definitely going to continue to campaign actively for organ donation,” she said.
“There are more people out there who need organs than are donating and they deserve the hope and the opportunity that I got,” she added.
Isabel cannot fly until September, but she is considering a cruise in October, with her mother.
“It’d be nice to get a break, I haven’t been able to travel for a while,” she said.
“A cruise with my mother in October would be great. She’s been really good to me, along with my boyfriend and the rest of my family.”
Isabel also plans to contact her donor’s family, through the transplant coordinator’s office.
The family will then decide if they want to receive a letter and get in touch with Isabel.
“I’ll definitely send a letter. I have to say thank you to them and that I can’t express my gratitude,” she said.
“Words can’t explain what they’ve done for me.
“I hope they get back in touch, as I’d really like to meet them and thank them in person,” she added.
“I really can’t express my gratitude enough to my donor, their family, all the doctors, surgeons and nurses at the Freeman, and everyone who helped me along the way.
“I wouldn’t be here, if it wasn’t for them.”