Looking after the tiniest of hearts – Dr Orla Franklin
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Despite receiving a heart transplant just 24 months ago, Michael (Mick) O’ Shea will represent Ireland at the 2019 World Transplant Games next month.
When Mick O’ Shea from Mallow in Co Cork visited his GP in May 2017 complaining of flu like symptoms, little did he know that four months later he would be undergoing a heart transplant and two years after that he would be representing Ireland at the World Transplant Games.
Mick is the only heart transplant recipient on the Irish Transplant Team of athletes ranging in age from 16 to 81. Like Mick, the team of 29 men and 10 women have all undergone organ transplants and include, 1 heart, 1 lung, 4 livers, 1 bone marrow and 31 kidneys.
The largest ever Irish Transplant Team travelling abroad, they will be among 2,000 participants from more than 60 countries who will take part in the World Transplant Games 2019 in Newcastle Gateshead, UK next month (17-24 August).
The Irish Kidney Association is responsible for Ireland’s involvement in the World Transplant Games and National Projects Manager with the IKA, Colin White is the team manager.
Mick has been on quite a journey since the May Bank holiday in 2017 when he was forced to come home early from a run as he was not feeling well.
Mick, who was 38 at the time, described feeling generally unwell and lethargic and feared he was coming down with the flu. When he lay down at night, he said he began to feel worse as his lungs filled up so much that he felt he was “drowning.”
“If I didn’t go for an intervention at that stage, I don’t think we would be having this conversation,”
As the days passed and he wasn’t feeling any better, Mick visited his GP who sent him immediately to Mallow General Hospital (MGH).
“If I didn’t go for an intervention at that stage, I don’t think we would be having this conversation,” Mick told the Irish Heart Foundation.
I went up to Mallow General Hospital and I never went home again until after my heart transplant,” he added.
From MGH Mick was referred to Cork University Hospital and from there he was sent to the Mater in Dublin, where he was eventually diagnosed with myocarditis caused by a viral infection.
Myocarditis is an infection of the myocardium; the muscle of the heart. Myocarditis is not related to lifestyle and there are no preventative treatments for it. Most people who get myocarditis make a full recovery without any complications. Unfortunately, however, a small number of people with myocarditis can get seriously ill and develop severe heart failure which was sadly what happened to Mick.
Before being transferred to Dublin Mick was put on an intra-aortic balloon pump in CUH. This is a plastic balloon which is inserted into your heart’s main blood vessel, the aorta, through a very small puncture in your leg. The balloon is inflated by an external pump and helps your heart to deliver blood around the body. Unfortunately, the pump did not make any difference and Mick was referred to the Mater Hospital in Dublin for specialist coronary care.
Mick recalled that when he was waiting to be transferred to the Mater, he was told that his heart was functioning at just 10 per cent.
He was so ill that every acute hospital on the way from Cork to Dublin was put on alert in case he didn’t make it to the capital and had to be diverted to another hospital en-route for emergency care.
“You are just basically just a body lying there, you can’t even move your head as there were wires in your neck, wires everywhere,”
Mick was to stay in the Mater in Dublin for over a month during which time his condition deteriorated so much that he was put on an ECMO machine.
ECMO stands for Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation. The ECMO machine is similar to a heart-lung bypass machine used for open heart surgery. Extra corporeal means ‘outside the body’. Therefore, ECMO is the use of an artificial lung (membrane) located outside the body, (extra corporeal) that puts oxygen into the blood (oxygenation) and continuously pumps this blood into and around the body. It is essentially a mechanical heart outside the body.
Mick described the time in ICU on the ECMO machine as “horrific” and said what got him through was advice from a nurse to take it “hour by hour.”
“You are just basically just a body lying there, you can’t even move your head as there were wires in your neck, wires everywhere,” he recalled.
Mick’s wife Jennifer travelled regularly from Mallow to visit him in Dublin and would stay for three days at a time. When Jennifer wasn’t there, Mick’s mother and other family members travelled to be with him.
“We don’t really talk about the hard times, but I think it was very tough for Jen and my family. When you are going through it, it’s not as bad as watching someone else going through it …for every day I had a good day I had two or three bad days …I felt almost as if it wasn’t happening to me. And it happened so fast, within the space of a month and half of that I had spent in ICU …..with machines on me that I never knew existed,” he said.
The hours passed into days and the days to weeks and eventually, after 14 days, Mick was taken off the ECMO machine. Unfortunately, the ECMO had not made any difference to his condition and the decision was made to put Mick’s name on the list for a heart transplant. His weight had dropped by three stone in a month and time was running out.
“ This will be a massive achievement, and a big thanks to my Donor family for giving me this opportunity. I’m also delighted to be part of the very inspirational Transplant Team Ireland,”
Mick was prepped for transplant four times, the first three times it wasn’t to be, and his hopes for a new heart were dashed. However, it was fourth time lucky for Mick when he finally received his new heart in August 2017.
Mick said one of the first things he noticed when he woke up after his transplant was the sound of his new heart or more specifically his new pulse. The loud and steady beat unnerved him initially as he wasn’t used to it. A nurse explained that it was like he had gone from driving a car with a 1 litre engine to one with a 2 or 2.5 litre engine and it would simply take time for his body to get used to having a healthy heart again.
Mick finally got home in September and, despite a number of setbacks which meant more return visits to the Mater, he is now doing very well and has dedicated himself to being fit and healthy.
Asked what he would say to anyone currently waiting for a heart transplant he said it would be to try and stay positive.
“It is horrific waiting but there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Just two years after his life-saving heart transplant Mick is now looking forward to joining Team Ireland in the World Transplant Games in the UK next month. He will be participating in the 40-49 years category in the following events: Cycling, Track and Field and Petanque Singles.
According to Mick, “It’s a huge achievement. Number one, to be able to honour your donor to show that you are respecting the gift that you got and that you are going to treat it right and push yourself to what you can achieve and number two it is a massive thing to represent your country.”
Mick will be two years post-transplant next month and he plans to write to his donor’s family anonymously, through the transplant coordinator at the Mater Hospital, to thank them for giving him his life back. His donor and their family are never far from his mind. As he said, it may be two years post-transplant for me but it’s a very different two-year anniversary for my donor’s family.
This will be Mick’s first World Transplant Games. A keen sportsman, he has always enjoyed running and cycling, and he recently qualified as a PT and Fitness Instructor.
“I can’t wait to represent my country in Newcastle. This will be a massive achievement, and a big thanks to my Donor family for giving me this opportunity. I’m also delighted to be part of the very inspirational Transplant Team Ireland,” Mick said.
The Irish Heart Foundation runs a number of support groups for people living with heart failure please see here for more information.
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