Carol Town, 63, gave a big hug to surgeon, John Wallwork. They hadn’t seen each other for 30 years. Carol attended a reception celebrating a professional accomplishment of Wallwork’s, in order to honor the anniversary of their last encounter. Wallwork had performed her heart transplant.
At the time, she hoped the surgery could extend her life by another four years. She says that seemed like a long time to her then.
Carol was diagnosed with Eisenmenger syndrome when she was only five years old. Eisenmenger syndrome is a congenital heart defect which causes arrhythmia, chest pain, strokes, and other symptoms.
It happens because of a ventricle septal defect, or in other words, a hole in the heart. That may sound like a lyric stolen from a pop song, but the implications are serious. The oxygenated blood that would normally flow into a person’s body, instead returns to an Eisenmenger syndrome patient’s lungs. This creates permanent lung damage. To learn more about this rare disease, click here.
There’s not exactly a cure for Eisenmenger syndrome, but the condition can be managed by various medications. In serious cases, patients like Carol may need a lung or heart transplant.
When Carol was growing up, doctors knew less about the condition than they do now. It was seen as largely untreatable. As a child in Upminster, England, Carol rotated in and out of hospital care. She struggled to breathe and her heart began to fail. Her name was on the transplant list at Papworth Hospital for 18 months. While she waited to hear if they had found a heart for her, she was not allowed to travel more than 2 hours away.
By the time Carol entered surgery in July, 1987, she could barely walk. Her quality of life was suffering. She, like many others in her situation, wanted desperately to have a new heart– even if it could only offer her a few more years.
John Wallwork successfully performed the heart surgery. It went so well, that Carol was out and able to celebrate her wedding anniversary the next month.
Since then, Carol flew past the four year life expectancy mark. She has continued to struggle with her health at times, but she’s been able to push past it and experience the life she didn’t know she would ever be able to. She’s learned to swim, bike, and ride horses. She’s had a son through a surrogate, and witnessed him grow up into an adult with a fulfilling career. She was finally able to focus on her own career in counseling. She has climbed literal and metaphorical mountains.
Carol shares her story of how an organ transplant saved and transformed her life, with hopes that it will inspire others to sign up as donors. To learn more about organ donation for the NHS in the UK, click here. To learn more about organ sharing in the US, click here.
John Wallwork has also enjoyed a successful career in the time since they last met. He has since become chairman of Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. Carol’s surgery took place not many years after Wallwork completed the first effective heart-lung transplant Europe had seen. Since then, he and others at Papworth have performed transplants to save over a thousand lives.