It’s 44 years since the first heart transplant operation was performed by South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard.
Lauren Dixon, 22, from Wesham, wasn’t born then. But today she’s doing her bit to promote the vital work of Blackpool’s Lancashire Cardiac Centre, as it’s thanks to the expertise of cardiologists there, she was fast-tracked to a transplant herself.
She’s also encouraging others to join the organ donor register – as it was the generosity of an anonymous donor which gave her fresh heart herself.
It’s now a year since the surgery and Lauren’s ticker is ticking along nicely, and she’s just managed to get back to work at Morrisons, Kirkham, on the check-outs. She also helps her mum and step-dad out at the pub they run, and live above, the Stanley Arms.
Lauren was one of the youngest local patients to receive a heart transplant, and although the operation was conducted in Manchester’s Wythenshawe Hospital, she reckons she’s alive today thanks to the skill of one of the resort’s consultant cardiologists Dr Alison Seed – and the ultimate act of kindness of a stranger.
The first indication Lauren had of her heart ailing was in June 2008, when she collapsed after attending a presentation night, picking up a pool trophy for a friend at the Breck Social Club, Poulton.
“I picked it up, went to sit back down, and basically felt really dizzy. I told my stepdad Martin that I wasn’t feeling well and next thing I knew I was at Blackpool Victoria Hospital – feeling massively ill.
“I was just 19, so there was no way I’d think it was my heart. I was fairly fit, had no family history of heart problems, and hadn’t even had palpitations prior to what happened.
“I woke up in intensive care at Blackpool Victoria with not even a vague memory of how I got there.
“Even now I still can’t remember. I’ve had to ask people.”
Lauren had a implanted cardiac defibrillator fitted, which is similar to a pacemaker.
She regained some energy, but still felt drained, but had regular check-ups in the pacemaker clinic, until last summer when her condition crashed.
“I became really ill, basically my body just deteriorated, closed down on me, and everything started failing.
“I got put in dialysis as my kidneys packed in, and I was transferred to the high dependency unit where, five days later, I celebrated my 22nd birthday on July 27.”
Fortunately, thanks to expert assessment there, she was fast-tracked to transplant surgery and got her new heart, after a five-hour procedure, on July 31.
“It was the best birthday gift ever. Some people are on the waiting list for ages, yet it took just eight days for me to get a new heart.
“I started feeling better straight away, my kidneys picked up, and are functioning properly now, and my lungs are good again.
“I was expecting to be on the list for months, to be honest. I sometimes think about who gave me the heart and at one point I wanted to find out, but in the end I didn’t... but I’m glad and really grateful to whoever it was.
“And now I’m back to work and spreading the word that this can happen to you, while you’re young, too.
“Touch wood, there are no complications.
“You have to take drugs to stop your body rejecting the heart for life, and other things, but I feel so much better... and my parents aren’t worrying about me so much now, either.
Dr Seed, who works as part of the transplant team in Manchester, concedes that the transplant procedure is no longer cutting edge – although one medical breakthrough is helping more to survive the waiting list for the surgery.
Her patient’s age makes it all the more remarkable, which is why Lauren has been filmed by Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust to talk about what happened, and how she feels today.
It makes the point that transplant surgery spans the age range – and that they need more donors registered.
Dr Seed explains: “Lauren was felt to be at very significant and immediate risk and therefore was fast-tracked for an operation that is not always immediately available.
“The number of donor organs available continues to limit the number of operations performed and, to some extent, dictates the eligibility criteria.
“A recent development locally is that Manchester can now implant mechanical assist devices, relatively small metal pumps, into a failing heart to help a patient survive while waiting for transplant.
“The development for us is that the specialist HF service is now perfectly positioned to assess patients with regard to the severity of their condition and their prognosis (risk for the future).
“My experience working as part of the transplant team in Manchester is invaluable in these assessments.
“It means patients do not need to travel to Manchester for assessments until we are confident that they would be a candidate.”
Last word to Lauren,“I’d really encourage people of all ages to go on the donor register because it saved my life.”