A young dad has told how his life was saved when he received a donor’s heart – which doctors kept beating by keeping the organ in a BOX.
Lee Hall, 26, was diagnosed with heart failure aged 14 and had a mechanical pump fitted five years ago to keep the blood flowing around his body.
But when the pump cables got infected in May this year, doctors told him he needed a new heart and said he had just TWO DAYS to find one.
He was told that, if a suitable donor could not be found that weekend, he would have to go through the trauma of having another pump fitted in the meantime.
But miraculously, an opportunity arose when the heart of a patient who had died that day was offered to Lee – and he was told it could be kept beating OUTSIDE the donor’s body.
The new ‘heart in a box’ method can revive hearts which have been dead for up to 30 minutes – and keep them alive for up to EIGHT HOURS before an operation.
It could save hundreds of lives as it DOUBLES the amount of time that hearts can be preserved outside of the body.
Using the revolutionary method, doctors revived Lee’s new heart by providing a passage of warm blood through it, just like it would receive in a living person.
The blood was heated to reduce the risk of tissue damage and oxygenated using a gas exchanger right up until the moment it was transplanted into Lee’s body.
Married dad-of-one Lee, of Illogen, Cornwall, said: “The fact that they could keep that heart alive in the box was the difference between life and death for me.
“I just woke up feeling so much better than I ever had. It has made a huge difference.”
Lee suffered from heart failure from the age of 14 or 15, which was linked to chemotherapy he had as a small child to treat leukaemia.
The keen sportsman, who spent most of his time sailing or on the football pitch, was told to tone down his physical activity and given drugs to improve his heart’s function.
But by the age of 20, when he was working as an electrician, Lee started feeling breathless, faint and was falling asleep on the job.
At the end of 2009 he reluctantly visited his doctor who sent him straight to Harefield Hospital in Middlesex for tests, where he was later fitted with a mechanical heart pump.
“I always knew there was something wrong but I thought it was just a bit of chest pain. I thought I was just overworking myself,” said Lee.
“But I was going out drinking on the weekends, as you do, and it would take all week for my body to recover.
“When I first had the heart pump fitted I didn’t like it. I had cables coming out of my stomach and I didn’t want anyone to see them.
“Over those five years I had a lot of infections and a lot of blood clots. When it was working it was all fine, but it would suddenly clog up with blood. It was risky.”
At the end of May, the pump clogged up once more and Lee was rushed to Harefield, where doctors found there was an infection on the device itself.
He went through surgery to remove the infection, but the blood clot was inside the pump itself.
Lee was told he had two days to have a transplant, or he would have to go through the trauma of having a new pump, which would mean having open heart surgery twice.
He had previously been told about the ‘heart in a box’ procedure, or Organ Care System (OCS), which was being trialled at Harefield Hospital, but thought little of it.
However, just as time was looking like it was going to run out, a doctor started asking Lee how he was feeling and carried out some tests.
“She just said, ‘How would you feel about receiving a heart transplant today?’,” said Lee.
“I was just like, ‘What, now?’, and she said the heart was already on its way over.
“And that was it. It was just like a normal operation. They came over to me with a needle to put me to sleep and when I woke up, I felt so much better than I ever had.”
Lee underwent the procedure in June and was discharged in July after a successful recovery.
Now, two months on, he is back at home with his wife, Danyelle, and their one-year-old son, Hayden.
“Not having to carry things around like wires, batteries and medical equipment to keep me alive is amazing,” he said.
“I’m most looking forward to going to the beach with my little boy and putting him on a body board in the waves, and I can’t wait to kick a football around.”
“It is the first time for years that I’ll be completely well.
“I’m grateful that I’ve been cared for at Harefield where this type of heart transplant is possible – without it I’d probably still be waiting for a new heart.
“It is hard to accept that someone has died for you to carry on living and I’d like to thank my donor and their family for making this possible.”
The ‘heart in a box’ technology was designed by US company Transmedics, and it is hoped that it will increase transplants by up to a third, saving hundreds of lives.
Harefield Hospital and Papworth Hospital in Cambridge are the only centres in the UK which are currently able to offer transplants using non-beating hearts.
Mr Andre Simon, director of transplantation at Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust, said:
“The use of non-beating hearts in transplantation is a very exciting development that will ultimately help us save more lives.
“It provides new hope to patients who are desperately waiting for a heart transplant.”
Harefield Hospital has now invested in a second OCS machine to ensure patients can benefit from the increased number of hearts that will be available for transplantation.