Tuesday, September 11, 2012

the moment a mother met the heart transplant patient whose life her dead son saved

With arms spread wide and beaming with joy, Bobby Doherty and Margaret Valsechi meet for the first time.
It’s a moment which captures happiness so much you can almost touch it.
The story behind it, however, is pure heartbreak.
Just 23 months ago, Margaret’s 26-year-old son Stephen died in an accident. In her grief, she decided to donate his organs for transplant.

It was a decision that was to save 26-year-old Bobby’s life.
Born with a heart defect, he’d become increasingly ill over the previous two years, his condition deteriorating so rapidly he’d spent the past five months in hospital waiting for a transplant. Without it, he had possibly only weeks to live.
But thanks to Margaret’s brave decision, Bobby is able to live his life to the full — including, 11 months ago, becoming a father.
Keen to acknowledge the second chance he had been given, Bobby sent Margaret a letter outlining his heartfelt thanks.
That started a regular correspondence which culminated in their first meeting a fortnight ago. The picture you see here records that moment.
‘I was nervous about meeting Margaret,’ says Bobby, a project manager for a building firm, from Tonbridge, Kent.

‘I wanted her to see me and see how well her son has made me, and although I knew I got on with her through letters, I was desperate for it to go well face-to-face.
'I was more nervous than when I was waiting for the transplant.
'I also felt guilty that I lived because her son died.
‘But the moment I saw Margaret I could see how happy she was to meet me.
'Meeting her eased those feelings of guilt. To be able to thank her in person was wonderful.’
Margaret, too, was ‘very nervous’ about the meeting.
‘We had been in contact for over a year, but to actually see the man who has my son’s heart! I was worried about breaking down in front of him.

'But it was a wonderful experience, there are no words to describe how special it was.’
Their story begins when Bobby was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect within hours of his birth; he was born with just one pumping chamber and doctors said he wouldn’t live past three months.
Bobby defied their bleak predictions and his heart gradually adapted, with the one pumping chamber doing the work of two.
Although otherwise healthy, Bobby grew up smaller and weaker than his classmates.
‘I could take part in sports at school, but I’d be out of breath while others were able to keep going.’
However, while he was warned his quality of life might start to deteriorate from his late teens — and despite 13 other problems with his heart — Bobby managed to live a normal life.
Then suddenly, at the age of 22, he started to go downhill.
‘I had a cold and felt completely exhausted. I felt like I had no oxygen in my lungs and I was really struggling to breathe. I couldn’t even put five words together,’ he says.
‘I thought I had picked up a virus and was admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital in London for five days. I was offered surgery that week, but the drugs started to improve my heart function again, so they decided to just monitor me.’
However, his heart was starting to fail and this was having an increasing effect on the blood flow to his lungs. It was also enlarged from having to work so hard to keep pumping.
Five months later he had a shunt operation, where a tube is used to link a cardiac artery to a lung artery to help move the blood around.
‘Such an operation is usually done on babies, so the doctors said they didn’t know how it would work on someone my age, but that it was worth a try.’
The operation failed — Bobby’s heart wasn’t strong enough.
‘That was the lowest point. I’d thought it was going to work, but I could tell as soon as I came round that I didn’t feel any better. Then one of my lungs collapsed.’

Although discharged after a week, his condition continued to deteriorate.
‘I was struggling more and more to breathe. I had to stop work and was housebound — I couldn’t walk more than a few steps at a time.
'The doctors said to leave it for six months, that it can take the body a while to adjust. But it never did, and deep down I knew that it wasn’t right.’
Eleven months after the shunt operation, in March 2010, Bobby was placed on the waiting list for a new heart.
‘I was devastated: it sounded so final and drastic. And I knew people died waiting for a transplant. But I couldn’t go on like I was.
‘I started to get more optimistic, thinking about things I could do with a new heart. But I’d worry I would get too poorly to have the transplant. It was a mix of being terrified and excited.’
By June, Bobby was so ill he was sent to a specialist hospital, the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle, and put on drugs, including a drip with a drug that goes straight into the heart to boost its function.
‘Two weeks later I had a bad reaction to one of the drugs. The doctors had to shock my heart back into rhythm and I nearly died. It was very frightening.
‘I tried not to think about being on the waiting list, it was driving me crazy. I was worried about my heart deteriorating further and although my Mum, Sheree, was with me all the time, which really helped, the rest of my family and my girlfriend were 300 miles away.
‘Then one morning at 3am the transplant coordinator woke me and said they’d got a possible heart. I still couldn’t believe it was happening.
‘And I knew it could be called off at any minute if it was decided it wasn’t a good enough match or the heart started to deteriorate, so it wasn’t until after six hours of waiting, about 20 minutes before the operation, that I knew it was going ahead.
‘I called my family. It was a very difficult 20 minutes, as there was a possibility it was the last time I would speak to them. If anything happened during the operation and I didn’t make it, I was never going to see them again.
‘I managed to speak to my girlfriend (now fiancee) Rebecca, my brother, dad, sisters and grandparents. They were all trying to stay positive and kept saying, “See you soon.” ’
The operation was a success. ‘When I woke up, I was just excited to be alive,’ says Bobby.
‘The first couple of days I was so drugged up I can’t remember anything.
'On the third day my first thought was that I couldn’t feel it beating, but it was because it was a normal size — mine had been so big I could feel every beat through my body.’
Just hours before Bobby’s operation, Margaret had received the call all of us dread: her son, Stephen Valsechi, then living in Belfast, had had a terrible fall from a balcony and was on life support. Margaret was in New York — Stephen was born in Ireland, but the family had moved to the U.S. when he was two.
Two years ago, Stephen, a clothes shop assistant manager, decided to go travelling, ending up in Belfast, where he had close family. He’d been working in a bar when he’d had the fatal fall.
‘I got a phone call from my sister, Mary, around 3.30am to tell me Stephen had had an accident and we needed to get to Ireland straight away,’ says Margaret (Stephen’s father died 12 years ago).
‘There’s nothing like hearing those words, my heart just broke.
‘I had last talked to Stephen about ten days before, and he was telling me he was looking forward to the following weekend when he was celebrating his birthday with friends. My daughter Ellen and I booked flights to Ireland and arrived the next day.
'We were with Stephen for the next four hours before the doctors told me he was gone. Scans showed his brain was no longer functioning. The doctor asked us about donation and we didn’t hesitate.
‘Stephen was amazing. He was one of those people who could go into a room of strangers and by the end of the night he was friends with everyone. He was a naturally giving person.
‘He had volunteered at the local fire station at home, and he knew how precious life was. He had signed up to be an organ donor at 19. But back then, as a parent, I never thought I would have to carry out his wishes.
‘We were told that his heart went to a 25-year-old male, who was critically ill, and we were happy to know that Stephen’s heart would be beating in another young man’s chest.
‘Stephen was so young and we didn’t want his life to be in vain. Something positive and helpful needed to come out of his death. We needed a part of him to live on.’
As Stephen’s family were coming to terms with their loss, Bobby was starting to improve and 11 days after his transplant he went home — ‘which was incredibly quick, but I was desperate to get home.’
Three months after receiving her son’s heart, Bobby wrote to the family of his donor, not yet knowing Margaret’s name. He wrote: ‘Thank you. You have given me the gift of life. I promise I will make the most of it.’
‘And I said to contact me if they would like to,’ says Bobby. ‘I didn’t want to offend or upset anyone.’

Organ recipients often send a letter to their donor through the hospital, says Lynne Holt, transplant coordinator at the Freeman Hospital.
‘Most don’t get a reply, sometimes there can be one and occasionally the contact continues on an anonymous basis.
'This means the donor family can gain the comfort of knowing more about the recipient, without the pressure of meeting.’
Margaret was overwhelmed by the contact.
‘When we got that first letter from Bobby, my daughters and I had so many emotions all at once,’ she says.
‘That letter has been re-read so many times. It was so nice to know how he appreciated what Stephen did for him.
'We knew that we would write back straight away and we hoped to one day meet this wonderful man.’
For Bobby their reply was no less moving.
‘I had to go to the hospital to pick up the letter. I sat down with the nurses to read it.
‘Margaret wrote that it was an easy decision and they were so thankful and happy I had contacted them.
'It was hard, as it becomes someone’s son and brother who was living life to the full and who didn’t deserve to die. It was very emotional. But it was nice they had got joy out of hearing from me.’
And so began an extraordinary friendship, with letters exchanging every few weeks. Indeed, when Bobby became a father for the first time to Charlie, a year after the transplant, he wrote and thanked Margaret again.
‘It felt like a miracle. Only a year before I was close to death, and now I was holding my son in my arms. Charlie is only here because of what she did.’
Margaret sends gifts for Charlie and she is ‘Nanny Margaret’ to him. Bobby met Margaret and her daughter Ellen at the Westfield Health British Transplant Games, where transplant recipients from Britain compete in sport. The Valsechis’ flights were funded by the Freeman Heart & Lung Transplant Association.
‘We met at the games as I was competing in badminton,’ says Bobby.
‘When I hugged her, it was so emotional. I burst into tears later — as time passed I felt sadder for her that she had lost her son.
'They stayed with us for the week, and by the time it came for them to go home, it was devastating. We felt we had known them all our lives.
‘Rebecca and I are getting married in June and we’ve invited them.’
But as Lynne Holt says, such relationships are often not straightforward. ‘Meetings between donors and recipients are few and far between.’
Indeed Margaret has never heard from the recipients of Stephen’s kidneys and liver — but she understands they’re doing well.
‘Just because a donor family would like to meet up doesn’t mean the recipient would want to,’ continues Holt.
‘The recipient can feel guilty they have only lived because a person has died.’
Margaret says: ‘We are so thankful Stephen’s heart went to Bobby, whom we love and respect.
'Charlie is a part of my son Stephen. It is wonderful being called Nanny Margaret.’
Bobby adds: ‘I never felt it was strange having another person’s heart beating in my body — until I met Margaret, then that part of it became real. Now I feel I’m looking after it for someone else, and it’s looking after me.’

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