‘The doctors were ready to stop treating me and give my parents a bereavement counsellor… I had to learn to walk, talk and drink all over again’
An unknown airborne virus left a fit and healthy Co Armagh teen fighting for his life after it attacked his heart.
Three years later, Josh McGoldrick, from Gilford, is a walking miracle after medical teams battled for months to repair his shattered heart.
The 18-year-old, who spent six weeks in an induced coma while hooked up to machines keeping him alive, had to twice learn to walk, talk and swallow again.
He was so gravely ill that medical staff wanted to arrange a bereavement counsellor for parents Donna and Paul (both 38).
In the end, he was saved by a heart transplant and has since campaigned for the new opt-out organ donor bill that last month passed its first stage towards becoming legislation.
While most of us are enjoying the loosening of lockdown restrictions, Josh is still shielding to protect his new heart.
But far from being down about it, the inspirational teen oozes positivity and would much prefer we all make a bit of noise about the success of the organ donation drive.
“I am delighted that the long-awaited law on opt-out organ donation has been given approval to proceed by way of urgent procedure to the Northern Ireland Assembly,” he says.
“I like to think I made some noise on the issue as I wrote to all the MLAs and MPs in Northern Ireland for support. I look forward to us joining the rest of the UK by the legislation becoming law next year. Politics should never come before lives.”
Josh was an active 15-year-old when, in May 2018, his heart started to race and would not stop.
His parents took their son to a GP, where it was discovered his heart rate was 204. The normal level is between 60 and 100.
He was then taken to Craigavon Area Hospital, where staff realised how seriously ill he was and put him into an induced coma for transfer to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
At the Royal, doctors knew Josh needed specialist machines to make his heart, which had gone into failure, start working again.
With this equipment unavailable in Northern Ireland, an urgent call for help was put out to all hospitals in the UK.
After doctors at Manchester’s Wythenshawe Hospital answered, Josh was flown there by air ambulance.
Admitted to cardiac critical care, he was placed on a Bivad machine, which pumps blood round the heart, but severe damage had already been done and Josh was critically ill.
“When I arrived at Wythenshawe Hospital on May, 13 my heart was doing very little on its own,” he says.
“I was taken straight to theatre to have my Bivad machine inserted in my chest to do the work of my heart.
“I was in heart failure. My heart had been attacked by an unknown airborne virus which doctors said I could have got at any time. It could have been lying dormant in me. Because my heart wasn’t pumping properly, the rest of my organs were not getting enough blood supply and I was in multi-organ failure.”
Josh suffered two strokes caused by blood clots. Even though he was hooked up to an array of medical equipment, doctors were far from confident he would survive.
“I was in a induced coma for six weeks on my Bivad machine. On several occasions, my mum and dad were told that the hospital was going to withdraw my treatment and put a bereavement counsellor in place,” he explains.
“I had lots of surgeries because I had internal bleeding around my heart and my chest could not be closed.
“If the bleeding did not stop, my chest could not be closed and I could not be woken up.
“My medical team, especially Mr Venkat and Mr Yansis, my heart surgeons, and Dr Shaw and Dr Callan, my consultant cardiologists, worked night and day to save my life, along with the rest of the wonderful Wythenshawe Hospital transplant team. Eventually, a miracle happened and my organs began to heal and my medical team tried again to close my chest. The internal bleeding had stopped and they began to wake me up.”
It took a week for the team rouse Josh. As a massive Marvel fan, he was thrilled when his parents compared him to Iron Man, explaining that a machine was keeping his heart going.
Josh had suffered such severe muscle damage that he had to learn to sit, stand, walk, talk, drink and eat all over again.
He recalls: “I was not able to drink or eat for months. I had to walk with all my machines attached me to get strong.”
When the Bivad machine failed to get Josh’s heart beating normally, it became apparent that he would need a heart transplant.
He was so ill that he went straight to the top of the donor list. Just one day later, on July 12, 2018, he was offered a heart.
“My Bivad machine was keeping me alive and I was running out of time. I received my new heart on July 13, my wee sister Mya’s ninth birthday, Josh says.
“It then took a week to wake me up again, just the day before my 16th birthday on July 20. I had to relearn to sit, stand, walk, talk, drink and eat all over again.”
There was a further complication when it was discovered his new heart was not keeping a proper rhythm, meaning he required surgery to have a pacemaker fitted.
From then on, it was a superhuman effort by Josh and the staff to get him back on his feet and home from hospital.
“I worked extremely hard to get myself strong enough to go home with my mum and dad to my wee sister after four months,” he says.
“I returned home in September and had to go back to Wythenshawe Hospital every two weeks and then monthly for heart biopsies and check-ups.”
As well as undergoing years of intensive physiotherapy, Josh takes powerful medication every morning and night to stop his body from rejecting his new heart.
He will also be under the care of the transplant team at Wythenshawe Hospital Manchester for the rest of his life.
Josh is currently studying Level 3 Creative Media at South Eastern Regional College. He completed the first year of his course while shielding from Covid-19.
He also used the downtime to focus on giving something back.
“I have been using my media skills to create videos to raise awareness and educate the public on heart failure and the importance of organ donation,” Josh says.
“In my spare time, I support my charity, New Start: The Wythenshawe Hospital Transplant Fund Manchester, because they saved my life there. I raised £5,000 for them on my first heart birthday in July 2019.”
n You can support Josh at https://www.newstartcharity.org/donate-3 and see more of his story by searching for ‘My Heart Transplant by Josh’ on YouTube. To find out more about the courses offered by South Eastern Regional College, visit https://www.serc.ac.uk/RC