From The Heart: Heart transplant is a 'gift of life' to those in despair

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Alex Smith is a big man in every way. He was a dog handler in the RAF police. He played rugby – coming from Hull, how could he not play rugby? But while he was in the RAF, they found he had a heart problem.

Eventually, it was so bad, he had what doctors call end-stage heart failure. It sounds ominous and it is. He could not play with his kids anymore. He could not even walk upstairs without feeling exhausted.

I met Alex 16 days after he had a heart transplant at Papworth Hospital. He had spent 20 months on the transplant list and he was beginning to despair – after a year, he told me: “I felt I was at the bottom of the list.”

But the day I met him he was almost joyful. He strode into the gym for a session on the exercise bike with his physiotherapist - 20 minutes at a time. He is determined to get fit again – to be able to throw a rugby ball to his son. After the session we talked.

I feel like someone somewhere just gave me the greatest gift of life and I thank their family for making that difficult decision.

– Alex Smith

But then, his stoical, determined exterior started to crumble. I could see that a tear was starting in the corner of his eye as he told me that the family who had made their dead relative’s heart available for transplant had given him a new life.

The enormity of what had just happened to him was sinking in.

And he can look forward to many years of his new life. Ninety per cent of heart transplant patients survive for a year – and 50 per cent go on to live for at least 10 years after the operation.

Richard Worthington has done a lot better than the average, he is one of the longest surviving heart transplant patients – he had the operation 29 years ago when he was only 20.

And since then, he has lived the new life that is now unfolding for Alex. He got married – to a nurse who he met at a fundraising dance for Papworth hospital. He has three sons and a daughter who is away at college.

I met his family and as we talked it became clear that although Richard has been on anti-rejection drugs for all those years (and other drugs to control the side-effects), he has been able to lead a fit and full life.

He swims regularly, he is redecorating the hall. Just like any other father of four.

The thing about transplant patients is that you cannot tell from the outside that their lives have been saved by the skill of the surgeons and the generosity of a donor family.

The only giveaway is the occasional far-way look in their eye when they think how lucky they have been and how much they owe to that donor.