“A perfect match.”
That’s how a brave teenage transplant patient today described his life-saving donor heart.
Joe Higgins is making a “miracle” recovery after having a heart transplant at Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester, one month ago.
The 18-year-old has now regained enough strength to speak for the first time about his experience over the past six weeks, which included suffering full organ failure twice, as well as the massively complex four-hour transplant operation.
He said: “The heart I’ve received is a perfect match, therefore I should be able to lead a full and happy life.
“It’s safe to say it’s been the hardest, most unbearable month I could imagine.
“I’ve been close to death several times. The chance of me pulling through was very slim, but I’ve been lucky.”
Speaking about the family who donated his new heart, he said: “I’m beyond grateful to the donor family and their selfless act.
“I want to write to them when I’ve made a full recovery and try and explain what they have given back to me. I’m just so grateful.”
Months to live
Joe, of Linderbreck Lane, Poulton, was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy earlier this year – a condition which sees the heart weaken as the muscle becomes enlarged.
Despite being a healthy, sporty teen he was told that without a transplant he could have just months to live and in September was placed on the urgent donor list.
In early October he underwent heart bypass surgery and then suffered a massive setback, as all his organs shut down days later.
But one week on from the organ failure, and a month after going on the urgent donor list, on October 24, a match was found and he was taken into theatre.
Finding the match was the “miracle” his family, parents Chris and Marie and sisters Gaby, 24, and Chessie, 23, had been waiting for.
But then, in the hours following, he suffered organ failure once more.
At 3am the day after surgery, his family was warned to brace themselves and told “survival was looking bleak”, Chessie told The Gazette.
But the family’s faith, support from friends, relatives and even strangers, and knowing Joe’s determined “fighting spirit” pulled them all through.
Chessie said: “It’s been an unbearable and distressing time, but we have always tried to keep that hope, and remind ourselves of Joe’s fighting spirit. My mum has incredible faith, so that pulled her through.”
Doctors started to ease Joe off sedation drugs at the beginning of November.
Chessie said: “It’s been incredible to get Joe back.
“It’s been a slow process, it wasn’t like he just woke up, everyday we got a little bit more of Joe back.
“He’s now fully off the sedation drugs, but the doctors are saying he’s as weak as a kitten and he can barely support his own head. But surgeons are happy with his progress.”
To help ease him from his induced coma doctors fitted the teen with a tracheotomy, meaning he has had no voice.
On odd days they fitted him with a temporary device, to allow him to talk to his family, and he is today able to speak unaided.
Chessie said: “One of the first things he said was ‘get me home’. ”
He remains in intensive care, and it is expected he will remain there for a few weeks.
Chessie added: “He’s still fighting many battles, but there’s every chance he’ll make a full recovery in time and come home to us.”
While Joe has been in hospital well-wishers have posted regular messages of support on social networking sites, while schools and workplaces across Fylde have raised money for the uni at Wythenshawe Hospital.
His former schools, St John’s Primary School and Baines High School in Poulton, Blackpool Sixth Form College, and Victrex PLC, where Joe had been due to take up work in September, have raised more than £5,000 for the cardiac unit.
Chessie said: “He’s beyond grateful to the incredible staff at Wythenshawe, they really are angels.”
Joe will be able to send anonymous letters to the family of his organ donor and will be able to receive details of the donor’s age and sex.
In some instances, donor families and recipients have met at a later date.