Thirty year old Chris Carlin has just graduated as a Mechanical Engineer from Queensland University of Technology. He also went hiking through America’s Grand Canyon last year, and it’s not unusual to find him climbing hills around Brisbane, or paddling his canoe along local rivers.
That’s impressive, I hear you say; but why is it worth writing about?
Because until six years ago, Chris’s heart was slowly, painfully killing him.
Since he was a child, Chris’s heart had been his Achilles Heel. By the time he was 18 he’d had a pace maker inserted due to some ‘electrical problems’. But by his early 20s he became increasingly aware of a growing discomfort in his chest – something wasn’t right. Tests were run and results came back fine. Chris decided to up stumps and travel the world for a year, dogged by this ongoing pain but nonetheless encouraged by negative test results and doctors who told him to head off and enjoy the trip.
But things got worse.
The swelling in his chest increased, the pain became sharper and more regular, and his breathing was short. He returned home to finish his carpentry apprenticeship and just scraped it in – towards the end he’d find himself in the carpark vomiting.
But he was told he was fine…? Results were showing nothing. It must all just be a bit of a phantom illness. So Chris pushed himself – he pushed himself to work, he pushed himself to do physical exercise, he pushed himself to a point that could no longer be ignored. Something was very wrong.
A different round of tests this time yielded shocking news – at the age of 24 Chris had restrictive cardio myopathy. In layman’s terms – his heart muscles were stiffening and not doing their job properly. It’s a condition common among our aging population, but not for a young man in his prime.
Doctors at the Prince Charles Hospital were clear – Chris would die without a heart transplant.
It was news he accepted pretty well, truth be told. In one way it was just a relief to know that this nagging, painful presence that shadowed him for half his life did actually exist; it did have a name. Two months later Chris was awoken at 2am with a call from the hospital – they had received a heart. He was there in a flash, as was one other potential recipient whom he never saw (around 1,500 people are on Australian organ transplant lists at any given time). Anti-rejection medicine was administered, further tests were run to determine the probability of Chris’s body accepting the heart, and vice versa, and a decision was made.
Chris was to be the recipient of this heart on that occasion.
By 8am he was in surgery. He was in good hands – Australia is a world leader in successful transplant outcomes and the Prince Charles Hospital has performed approximately 20 per cent of the country’s 244 heart and lung transplants to date.
But in Chris’s words, you don’t have a transplant for fun. You don’t just get a heart and walk away. It’s a literal life saver, but it comes with a life of consequence and consideration. He spent the next several weeks in recovery, learning how to take the medicine that would be required for as long as his ‘new’ heart kept beating. The medicine is essentially to trick the body into accepting a foreign organ; without such trickery the body would reject and attack its new recruit.
So this is the point we return to uni degrees, Grand Canyoning, hiking and paddling. Indeed, Chris hasn’t been this healthy since he was a kid. For the past four consecutive years he and his dad have jumped on their bikes and pedalled 25km in the Cycle of Giving, an annual ride that promotes and fundraises in support of the selfless act of organ donation. For Chris, it’s an opportunity to show his personal gratitude, but also to do his bit to raise more awareness about organ donation. One in two Australians do not know the donation decision of their loved ones. Those who do opt to donate their organs often don’t realise that their family has the ultimate, final say when they are no longer in a position to speak and decide for themselves. Luckily for Chris, the donor and donor’s family were fully committed to organ and tissue donation. If they hadn’t been, he and his dad might never have had the opportunity to participate in their annual traditional father and son ride.
Did you know…?
• Nobody is too old, too young or too unhealthy to register as an organ and tissue donor.
• One organ and tissue donor can transform the lives of ten or more people.
• In 2013, 391 organ donors gave 1,122 Australians a new chance in life.
• In Australia more than 60 per cent of families give consent for organ and tissue donation to proceed.