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Extract: How it feels to wait for a heart transplant

John Healy, maitre d of RTÉ’s The Restaurant, recalls the stress of waiting for his life-saving heart transplant operation.

John Healy

It took John Healy, maitre d of RTÉ’s The Restaurant, two major heart attacks to realise that he had to change his life. Then came the news that he would need a heart transplant.

In his new book, A Perfect Heart, John opens up about his present health fears, as well as his past traumas of sexual abuse he suffered as a child and the hidden side of a drug and alcohol-fuelled lifestyle that spiralled out of control. He writes:

WHEN MY HEART failure cardiologist told me I needed to have an assessment for a heart transplant, I was not shocked. We had discussed the possibility the previous year and he had said then that I should think about going on the national heart transplant list. I never knew such a thing existed. After my second heart attack, I had had a year in the beautiful, tranquil setting of Portugal to come to terms with the prospect of having to get a heart transplant to survive. I spent a lot of time on my own, sitting, digesting the idea and talking about it with people.

I flew home to face my next big challenge of getting on the heart transplant list and waiting for a donor. Everyone was very impressed by my healthy, tanned glow. The doctors in the Mater Hospital needed to see if I was eligible for a transplant and if I would be able to physically survive such a massive operation.

The process was explained to me in great detail a couple of times, so I was under no illusions about what lay ahead. The Restaurant was on TV over Christmas. It was around that time that the story broke in the newspapers that I was on the transplant list. In each interview I did I opened up a little bit more about my life and what I was going through. I spoke about what had happened in my past that I believed had brought me to the place I found myself in now. I believe my heart condition was, to some extent, caused by my lifestyle.

Explore my past

But I also believe there was a psychological and emotional side that caused it too that I never fully faced. I worked hard and played hard for years, but I don’t believe I did more than the man standing beside me in a nightclub or the person working next to me in a restaurant. Why did I have not one, but two heart attacks, and they didn’t? What led me to drink so much, take drugs, work to the point of exhaustion and party so hard? I wanted to explain to myself and the little boy inside me what had actually happened, and to make sense of it emotionally. As I waited for the transplant I used the time to explore my past and try to understand why I was on this life path.

My mobile phone was constantly with me; it was crucial that I knew where it was at all times. If a donor heart became available I had to be instantly contactable, as I had to be in the hospital within a half hour of getting the call. As the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into months I got weaker. I began to fear that I was not going to get a donor heart in time.

I was waiting for something to happen; to get that phone call telling me there was a donor heart, but I didn’t know if it was ever going to come. I was terrified that I was going to die.

Another fear I had was that my health would get so bad and my heart would deteriorate to an extent that I would have to be hospitalised. I couldn’t cope with the idea of being confined to a hospital bed.

Even though I hoped and prayed every day that I would get a donor heart, I was also afraid of having to undergo such major surgery. To hold the fear at bay I tried to keep myself busy doing something that was very important to me. I couldn’t face my fear so I threw myself into doing media interviews. I became involved with donor awareness, which I feel very strongly about. I wanted to help as much as I could. I went on Joe Duffy to tell my story, hoping it would encourage people to carry donor cards and speak to their families about what they wanted to happen with their organs when they died.

Raise awareness

It became my mission to raise awareness about the need for people to carry donor cards. I wanted to help in any way I could. I appeared on The Late Late Show on Good Friday 2011. Afterwards, when I was reflecting on the interview, I realised I was not emotionally or spiritually prepared for the transplant and I could no longer hide from how I was feeling. I had a lot of fear. But I was pretending to everybody around me and to myself that I was fine.

I was doing what I always did, hiding behind a façade, the old restaurant manager persona, the showman that put a smile on his face; convincing myself and everyone else I was coping with what I was going through when I wasn’t. I got help to deal with waiting for a heart transplant and it prepared me for the procedure. I also spoke to the counsellor about the abuse I experienced during my childhood and she helped me face what had happened to me.

Working was simply not an option as I was not strong enough, so I had no income except for the illness benefit of €188 a week. I was struggling financially, which was causing more stress for me on top of trying to deal with waiting to get a donor heart.

Phone call

One day in October, I was sitting in my apartment alone, worrying whether I was ever going to be told there was a donor heart for me, when I got the call I had been waiting for I couldn’t believe it; it was finally actually happening. I had imagined this moment for so long just as I was about to leave my apartment, the phone rang again.

The donor heart was not suitable. I was crushed.

The disappointment washed over me and I sank into my armchair and sat there in a daze, not sure what to do next.

I was getting very impatient. I had been on the transplant list for a year and I was beginning to think it was not going to happen in time. It felt as though time was running out and I was frightened. I knew that if my heart deteriorated much more, everything was going to become very difficult. I was getting weaker and I was terrified that I would soon be in hospital permanently, waiting for a donor heart, or dead. My biggest fears were now becoming reality.

A week before Christmas I got another phone call. There was a heart available and they were sending an ambulance to my home to get me. I sat in the ambulance as it weaved in and out of the festive rush-hour traffic and I was very nervous, but also strangely calm.

The doctor walked into my ward. I couldn’t speak as I sat there staring at him, hoping he was going to tell me I was going to theatre. However, I was given the devastating news that the heart was going to the other patient. It was not happening for me tonight. There was a heart, but I couldn’t have it. I was so close to having the transplant.

Christmas

It was Christmas so I was able to distract myself from my disappointment and growing fear. I went to my parents’ house for Christmas and the family tried to keep things as normal as they could. I threw myself as best I could into the festive traditions. I was very weak but I tried my best to remain positive. It was not until the middle of January that everything really hit me and I fell apart. I crumbled onto the floor of my apartment and cried like a child for hours. It was like somebody turned on a tap, and once the tears started flowing they wouldn’t stop. I was very angry, I felt very sorry for myself and I wanted it all to end.

But one evening, my phone rang. I don’t know why, but this time I knew this was it, I knew I was going to get a heart transplant.  I grabbed my bag, which had been packed and sitting at my bedroom door for over a year, and got into the ambulance. I was very excited; there was no fear this time.

In the anaesthetic room there was a big clock on the wall that read 4.25 AM. All the medics around me were chirpy and excited because a transplant was going ahead. A nurse told me I was going to be put under. I simply replied, ‘In your own time darling, bless you all’. I looked down, and the last thing I remember was one of the nurse’s clogs, which had little pink pigs on them, and then I fell asleep.

John Healy’s book, A Perfect Heart, is published by Liberties Press and is out now in all good book shops.

Read: Pioneering transplant doctor Joseph Murray dies in Boston>

Read: Meadhbh McGivern: “One year on, life is absolutely brilliant”>

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John Healy

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