“The operation saved my life, I was about six hours from death,” says great-grandfather Steve Syer, 75, who has needed to undergo not one, but two, different emergency organ transplants during his lifetime.
The first was a heart transplant in 1984, after he suddenly developed viral cardiomyopathy – the cause of 45% of heart transplants – an operation he was told could give him five years more. If he was lucky.
In 2016, more than three decades later and continuing to defy all the odds, Syer experienced acute kidney failure as a result of years spent taking a catalogue of anti-rejection medicines, and had to be admitted for an urgent transplant to replace another vital organ that was dying.
Thanks to his wife Christine donating one of her kidneys, it was another success.
“Having both transplants has allowed me to see my children grow up, get married and have children, and see all the grandchildren grow up and have children of their own,” says Syer.
For the majority of transplant patients they will only need one life-changing operation during their time on Earth. Syer is part of a small minority who require a second, or even third, organ replacement.
There are currently 48 UK patients who require multiple organ donations, but as 2016-2017 only saw 14 deceased donors able to do so, many are left waiting.
But organ donation campaigners have reason to be optimistic.
The 3 December marks 50 years since the first human heart transplant took place in South Africa. Louis Washkansky, 53, who was terminally ill with heart failure, received a heart from 25-year-old donor Denise Darvall, killed in a fatal car accident. Darvall’s kidneys also saved the life of a 10-year-old boy.
Washkansky, who only survived 18 days before he died of pneumonia, was the first in a long line of heart transplant patients for whom the odds have increased dramatically, in Syer’s case doubling his potential lifespan overnight.
Today the British Heart Foundation (BHF) says we are able to carry out as many as 200 adult heart transplants each year, and 70% of these patients have a life expectancy of more than five years.
More impressively, the total number of people in Britain who are alive thanks only to their access to organ transplants, is now at a record-breaking 50,300 – more than enough to fill Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium, and almost enough to fill Liverpool’s Anfield.
By donating your organs you can make a huge difference to someone’s life…”
For Syer, requiring multiple transplants has been challenging, and has no doubt changed his life but as he quips, they are the only thing that allowed him to “carry on” with the life he had built.
Six weeks after his heart transplant Syer was discharged and went back to work for another 18 years.
And even when he retired in 2002, grateful for the life his heart transplant had afforded him, he took up a volunteering post at his local BHF shop and helped to raise £1.8 million pounds for research in the process.
Not only was he able to help charities in this way, but took up a position as group chair of a transplant group at Harefield hospital, Gloucester.
He said: “I was able to build the confidence of those who required similar life changing operations.”
“We have recovered and are carrying on with our lives…the extra years of life have allowed me to see my children grow up, get married and have children.”
Syer makes a plea to people to sign up to the organ donor register, he says: “Donating your organs you can make a huge difference to someone’s life, like the young man who donated his heart which I received.
“The most important thing you must do is to talk to your family and tell them of your wishes in signing the organ donor register because they have the final say.”
If you want to become an organ donor, it only takes two minutes to sign up on the NHS donor website and doesn’t require any documentation or additional information.