My Story: Forever grateful to a stranger.

It was organ donation awareness week recently. Mamamia reader and regular contributor Julie Cowdroy has had first hand experience of the life giving gift of organ donation.  Here she tells the story of her dad….

In 2006, my dad, Fred was not feeling crash hot. He thought perhaps he was unfit as he was becoming short of breath. So he bought an exercise bike and started taking walks.

He still couldn’t shake it. He visited the doctor who said he had a chest infection. Further investigation led to an x-ray. After more tests, it was confirmed that my dad had Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. Basically, this is a degenerative lung disease where the air sacs of the lungs become replaced by fibrotic tissue (inflamed tissue that has become scarred). As the scar forms, the tissue becomes thicker which means the lungs cannot transfer oxygen into the bloodstream. The condition is irreversible and we found out that my Dad would need a lung transplant. In August 2008, dad was put on the waiting list for a lung transplant and we optimistically waited for the perfect match. He needed a set of lungs that would match his size, weight, blood type and tissue type.

The symptoms weren’t too bad when he was first diagnosed. But pretty soon, he deteriorated. He had to slow down at work, and then he was put on oxygen. He not long after gave up work permanently, and became confined to a wheelchair. Eventually, Dad was bed-ridden and permanently on oxygen.

He was in and out of hospital, and suffered panic and anxiety attacks often thinking his oxygen bottle was not working, or someone had turn down the amount coming through.

When we first heard about dad’s disease, we just presumed we would get new lungs for dad and we could all go on living as normal. But as things got worse, we started to become really concerned.

We had a combined family gathering and my dad, who was once the life of a party, was now sitting in a wheelchair in the corner, looking at the dial on his oxygen tank.

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I gave birth in July 2009, and the first person to see my new son was my dad as he was upstairs in the respiratory ward. It was a very hard time.

By August 2009, dad looked like he was 70 years old, even though he was only 58. He was on a bi-pap machine, which blew oxygen into his face. This machine is usually a sign that things are nearing an end.

We had nearly given up hope.

Finally one night in September, my mum was sitting at home while dad was in hospital. It was very late.  Mum’s phone rang. It was my dad. “They’ve got lungs, Rel.” Dad had to make the hour and a half trip to St Vincent’s hospital. This in itself was quite the challenge because you can’t transport a bi-pap machine. No matter, dad was high on life (and a cocktail of other drugs) and made the trip just fine.

Some of his best friends were up very early for an international flight. An ambulance screamed by their travelling car on the freeway and his friends prayed it was my dad in the ambulance. They were soon to find out that it was.

The surgeon performed the transplant the next day. He said dad’s lungs were the worst he had ever seen.

We were to later to learn that, prior to the lungs coming in, the staff at the local hospital were getting dad ready for palliative care. It has been suggested he only had a few days left. We also later found out that just before the transplant, my dad’s friend who works at the hospital would visit dad each shift she was there. One day she came in to say goodbye as she was going away for a few days. As she walked out, the nursing staff said, “Did you say goodbye to your friend?” “Yes, of course.” “No. Did you say ‘goodbye’ to your friend?” This still makes me shudder. It really was the eleventh hour when the lungs came in. While she was away, she received a text message from my mum. She couldn’t open it for a long time. You can imagine her delight when she finally opened it and read: “Fred has new lungs.”

When I went to visit my dad just two days after the transplant, he was sitting up in bed, high on so many drugs with a cheesy grin on his face. “Jules! I’m alive!” I have never seen such joy on someone’s face. Just remembering it gives me goosebumps.

It has been 7 months since the transplant. My dad is doing so well. He is more pumped about life than anyone on the planet and wants us all to give up our jobs and sit around and stare lovingly at each other. It’s hilarious. We are all so ecstatic. Especially my mum, Narelle. They celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary two months ago.

I cannot explain the overwhelming sense of joy I felt when I received the news. But that quickly turned into an unshakeable sadness, knowing that someone had just died. It is still hard to swallow that someone had to die so dad could live. Knowing this makes me feel so very humbled and forever grateful.

When dad goes back to the hospital for check ups, we often have encounters with people who are waiting for organs. I remember the pain of waiting and always pray they get to have their new lease on life.

Receiving an organ really is the greatest gift anyone could ever receive, and the greatest gift anyone could ever give.

Check out www.donatelife.gov.au to find out more.

Image by Christine Domanic

Have you ticked the organ donation boxes on your drivers licence? If not, why not? If so, was it a difficult decision?

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