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Heart transplant saves woman who was days away from death

By Victoria O'Hara

A woman who has undergone a life-changing heart transplant has spoken of the miracle of receiving a new organ just days before she believed she would die.

Frances Downey, who has suffered from dilated cardiomyopathy for 20 years, described it as "an emotional rollercoaster".

Such was the devastating impact of her heart slowly failing in the months running up to the major operation, the 55-year-old from west Belfast could not even put on her shoes or climb a stair.

And as all her organs began to shut down she feared she would lose her battle.

But she received the gift of life when the phone rang in March to tell her a heart was available.

Speaking from her hospital bed in England just weeks after the surgery, Frances said she was passionate about raising awareness of the positive impact organ donation had on families.

"It's a miracle. I really didn't think I would be here, I am so lucky. But others need to know how important the organ register is – how it can give life to others."

Although Frances has been given a lifeline, she has experienced the pain of losing a loved one to heart disease.

Her toddler son Brian, who was diagnosed with both Duchenne muscular dystrophy and heart disease, sadly died in August 1991. He was just three-and-a-half.

The genetic heart condition can affect one or several members of a family.

And three years later, after numerous blackouts and health scares, Frances was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy.

She also discovered she carried the gene for the disease.

Doctors described her condition as a "time bomb waiting to go off", and she said she always knew in the back of her mind that one day she would need to go on the register in the hope of receiving a new heart.

But after years of coping since September 1994, Frances' condition suddenly deteriorated in January.

In the months before she got the call she had been rushed into hospital numerous times with continuing heart failure.

"I really didn't think I would live. But they got me in the nick of time," she said.

In January she was referred to the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle for an assessment.

But instead of a planned three-day visit, tests revealed she was gravely ill, and was kept 10 days.

"I was told, without a heart transplant, I was running out of time," she explained.

"I didn't want to leave my son Aiden, I wanted to live for him and I, so I chose to wait for a donor."

Frances was placed on an 'urgent' and then 'live' transplant list.

"I wasn't going to make it, due to my body shutting down," she said.

But she remembers clearly the moment her life changed.

"The phone rang at 1.15am. Suddenly I heard the words I had wanted to hear – they had a heart for me.

"Then I was being asked all these questions, whether I was well, or had had a cold.

"I just couldn't believe it, I was just shocked."

Within 15 minutes an ambulance was making its way to her west Belfast home.

Then both her and Aiden were rushed blue-lighted to the airport for a flight to Newcastle. "I had to wait for the longest hour ever to see if the donor heart was suitable," she said.

But it was, and an eight-hour operation began. Her son was by her side while she recovered and her sister Theresa flew from Australia to support her.

"The staff and my family were amazing, it is hard for me to put into words how much they have done for me," she said.

However, after two scares – one where her heart started to beat rapidly – she thought the heart was being rejected by her body.

But she was given the good news that she was well enough to make the journey home to a Belfast hospital within the week.

"I would not have had my life back after 20 or more years of illness only for the most kind, generous gift I received from my donor and family. I will be on anti-rejection drugs for the rest of my life, but it is a gift of life, which I will cherish.

"And I will live life to the full; before that I couldn't even make tea or put my shoes on, walk far, climb stairs."

Frances said it was vital people realised how important signing the organ donation register was.

"The fact is there are quite a lot of people on the donor lists waiting for transplants, but I was one of the lucky ones.

"I would urge people to have that conversation – say you want to be a donor and sign the register.

"I got my miracle, as I'm alive.

"There are so many others that deserve one too."

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