health

'14 months after my double lung transplant, I received a phone call from my donor's family.'

Imagine being told that you have three months to live and without a double lung transplant you will die.

I lived a very healthy life, was a non-smoker and so was absolutely shocked when told I had a terminal lung disease, Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF). I had never heard of this disease and after researching it, I was so heart broken and scared. How could I tell my two children that I was so ill that without a double lung transplant they would lose their mum?

My husband and I sat down with our children and told them the earth-shattering news. How proud I was of them for their reactions. We as a family decided that we would tackle this illness head on, fight it to the end and stay positive.

Tracey Slatter’s message to the family of the woman who saved her life.

Video by SBS Insight

I maintained this disease for 18 months until I rapidly declined. I ended up in a wheelchair, on oxygen 24/7. I couldn’t bathe myself, let alone go to the toilet on my own. Even eating is difficult when you can’t breathe properly. During the day I would sit in my lounge room all day, every day and just watch the world go by. This wasn’t living, this was existing. I was so depressed. I went from being this independent, strong woman, the backbone of my family, to being totally reliant on my family for everything. Could I keep going?

Eventually it got to the stage that I was transferred to the transplant team to be assessed for a lung transplant. The thing that scared me the most was that you don’t just get a transplant, you need to be fit enough to survive the surgery. Luckily for me, I passed all medical tests and was placed on the transplant waiting list.

It was incredible to be on the waiting list, but would I survive the wait? Most patients with IPF die waiting. Another emotional hurdle was moving to Brisbane, to better my chances of receiving an organ. This meant I had to leave my home and my two children to begin the life-saving wait. How traumatic it was saying goodbye to my children at the airport, wondering if I would ever see them again.

After 15 days on the waiting list, on the morning of the March 6, 2014, the transplant team called. I heard those words, “we have lungs”. It seemed the earth stood still for just a second and I realised what I had heard. All I could think about was this was my second chance and possibly a new life.

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All of a sudden, I started to think about a family somewhere who had suffered an enormous loss, but despite that were prepared to save a total stranger. That stranger being me.

lung transplant Tracey Slatter
Tracey with her daughter Emily. Image: Supplied / SBS.

The transplant went ahead and after being sedated for two days, I woke up to the smiling, relieved faces of my gorgeous family. After much recovery and a lot of pain, I was discharged from hospital 15 days later. No oxygen, no wheelchair – all because of a selfless family somewhere in Australia. I had to find them.

Under DonateLife guidelines, you are allowed to write anonymously to your donor family, but can’t reveal your name or where you live. So I started writing letters, and kept writing at each milestone and every special occasion. Meeting my donor’s family was extremely important to me, because I wanted to thank them and to show them what they did for me and for my family through their beautiful gift of life. In each letter, I dropped hints about my whereabouts and interests in the hope that they would try to track me down.

Fourteen months after my transplant, I received a phone call. Someone on the other end was asking me questions about my illness. I thought it was a telemarketer and was ready to hang up, but when they said I had been writing to them and mentioned that I wear a heart pendant in tribute to my donor, it soon clicked. Then I heard, “you have our sister’s lungs!” They had found me! How incredible that day was for me but also a sad one because I got to hear about the family’s loss and their beautiful Aileen, my organ donor.

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lung transplant Tracey Slatter
Tracey meets the Nguyen family. Image: Supplied / SBS.

We decided to meet in Melbourne and I was so honoured to have such an opportunity to meet the family who had saved my life. I hoped they would see what their gift had done and would get comfort also seeing the difference that their gift has made. The meeting was overwhelming. They are a very loving, caring, open family and they made the meeting so easy. Since then, despite some language barriers with Aileen’s parents, we’ve had no trouble communicating with each other. The two families have become very close and we share everything. Our relationship is amazing, and we are in constant touch.

Aileen is never far from our minds and there have been some interesting coincidences happen, too. I purchased a blue butterfly to place on a picture of Aileen. Then I learnt that she had had a blue butterfly tattoo. Aileen had a cat, a very stuck up cat who dislikes everyone. Upon meeting this cat, it was all over me and even jumped on my lap. The family were so surprised about the cat’s actions, because it only ever liked Aileen. One day whilst shopping, I had this urge to go and buy Aileen’s mother something. It ended up being Aileen’s mum’s birthday.

Since the transplant I certainly don’t take life for granted. My family is extremely precious to me and we value each and every moment together. Every breath I take is because of Aileen. She will never be forgotten. She will always be remembered. She will be eternally beautiful.

Tracey is a guest on tonight’s episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which asks what happens when a stranger saves your life. #InsightSBS

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