Heart op teenager gets a ‘second chance at life’

Back home Joe Higgins, who had a heart transplant at just 18  with his mum Marie

Back home Joe Higgins, who had a heart transplant at just 18 with his mum Marie

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Another precious chance.

The three words which sum up how brave teenager Joe Higgins views his remarkable fightback from the brink of death.

It was summer 2014 when the otherwise fit, healthy and active teen was told by doctors his heart was failing after he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy – a condition which attacked his heart and caused it to weaken as it became enlarged.

Within weeks of the shock diagnosis, Joe, who was never ill according to his parents, was on the urgent donor list waiting for a new heart.

While waiting for a match he underwent heart bypass surgery, was on a cocktail of drugs to maintain his health and even suffered multiple organ failure at one point.

Surgery

On October 24 the news Joe had been waiting for arrived – a match was found and Joe was taken into surgery for an operation lasting more than four hours.

But following an initial period after the surgery, where Joe’s body appeared to accept the new organ, his body crashed, blood pressure dropped and his family were warned to be ready for the worst.

Doctors worked for four hours to save his life following the surgery. He was, say his family, hooked up to “every life support machine going”.

It was an horrific ordeal for him and his family.

Yet he is just glad to be back at his family home in Linderbreck Lane, Hardhorn, and living his life again.

“It’s amazing to be home, it’s so different,” he said.

“Hospitals are all high ceilings and very clinical so it feels much smaller at home.

“I hadn’t been in a car for months so that was kind of scary, it was moving so fast and was so noisy.”

Joe, a keen BMX bike rider and former Baines High School pupil, was finally discharged from Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester, last Wednesday.

“Doctors had come round the wards that morning and I just said I’m not going to make any more progress in hospital now,” he added.

“I had to be able to climb 12 steps to prove my fitness.

“I’m getting around the house slowly now, it’s exhausting. After spending so much time lying down, you realise how much moving you do in a day. I’ll be taking it easy for the next month and building up my strength, then I’ll be going for cardio rehab at Blackpool Vic, to build up muscle.”

Yet although the determined teenager battled back from his ordeal, there is still a way for to go to full fitness and he must now endure regular heart biopsies for medics to ensure the body is not rejecting the organ.

He said: “Physically the physio was the hardest part of it all, I had no energy and it was exhausting just to move my head but now I’ve got something to work with it’s not too bad, I can see the progress each day.

“Emotionally, finding out was pretty hard. I was under the impression I wouldn’t need surgery, that I’d just be on drugs for the rest of my life.

“It was really surreal. I’d wake up every day and have to remind myself I was waiting for a heart. You worry about not pulling through or not being able to do the things you want to do in life, like not having a family or being able to enjoy your life. Then you know you’ve got that second chance at life. We kept positive. When I went down for the transplant I just told my family I’d see them soon. I was positive because I’d survived an infection and organ failure so I thought I was all out of bad luck.

“I was in high spirits going down for the operation.

“We know the heart came from a younger person. It was very upsetting to be told someone’s had to die for me to live, but it’s the best case scenario for the donor family, they know it’s saved my life.

“I’d love to get in touch with the family, I’m so grateful, but it’s up to them, it’s very sensitive.”

Meanwhile Joe’s mother Marie has spoken for the first time of the hours after her son’s surgery, telling how she feared her son may not survive.

“A few hours earlier it had been amazing. Then he crashed,” she said.

“We were locked in this room and could just see the medics running past and shouting. We knew it was critical. We knew that could be it.

“We got a phonecall at 3am saying that we had to get across to the hospital immediately.

“It was unthinkable. We were locked in this room. They couldn’t get him in to surgery so they brought the surgeon and anaesthetist onto the ward to treat him.

“We could see them running around and shouting and just had to stay there for four hours.

“Joe was very, very poorly and it was very, very serious.

“He’s hung on, and why wouldn’t he? He’s got so much to live for.”

Mother-of-three Mrs Higgins has also told of the conflicting emotions felt as she learned a match had been found for her son - the joy of their wait being over, coupled with despair knowing another family had lost a loved one.

She added: “You’re aware there’s another family who haven’t got that chance, but they’ve given this priceless gift.”

Now Joe hopes to back in work in late summer, back on his BMX even sooner.

And the family hope to one day find out more about the donor who granted this new life, for now content with the knowledge the donors other organs have helped others too.

Mrs Higgins said: “It’s unbelievable what their family has done, it’s a priceless gift and several families have been helped from their loss.

“I hope that helps them. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for them.

“It’s a big thing to think of when you’re in turmoil, but it’s given Joe another chance.”

Mrs Higgins, a former teacher at St Mary’s Catholic Academy, Blackpool, said the family had been buoyed by the outpouring of support from friends, family and even strangers, as well as the “world class” care at Wythenshawe.