Monday, May 12, 2008

The 18-year-old girl who has had three hearts

Leanne Nicholson
From the Daily Mail in London, England:
Leanne Nicholson is in many ways like any other 18-year-old. Slim, blonde, pretty, and planning a career as a youth worker, she is devoted to her pony Merrylegs and her fluffy Pomeranian dog Timothy.

But she is also a medical miracle, and lucky to be alive.

In her short life Leanne has had no fewer than three hearts - the one she was born with and not one, but two transplanted hearts.

Today, she is recovering at her home in Choppington, in Northumberland, from her second heart transplant three months ago.

"To receive a second heart transplant is a million-to-one chance as there is such a shortage of donor organs," says Leanne.

"I know now I have to do the very best I can with my life and make the most of the chances I've been given.

"I'm just so grateful to the families who lost their loved ones and took the difficult decision to donate their hearts for transplantation. I think about them every day, without fail."

Until the age of 12, Leanne was a normal, healthy child.

"She used to be outside doing handstands and riding ponies all the time. She was the picture of health," says her mother Helen, 40, a youth worker.

But in April 2002 a virus - unnamed and unknown - swept through her body, attacking the muscle tissue of her heart.

"At first we thought Leanne had flu," says her father Robert, also 40, who runs a cleaning company.

"We had no idea how ill she was. She just seemed under the weather. Then she began to be listless and had difficulty walking up the stairs.

"So we took her to our GP. The doctor listened to her heart and visibly went pale. The next thing we knew we were rushing to hospital in an ambulance.

"At the hospital we were with Leanne in a treatment room surrounded by so many doctors we lost count. After what seemed like forever one of them took us aside to tell us the bad news."

Leanne was diagnosed with severe cardiomyopathy, literally "heart muscle disease".

Her heart was so damaged by the virus - which by then had passed out of her system - that the doctors said it was as though she'd suffered three major heart attacks.

The upper two chambers of her heart were not functioning at all and the lower two were barely beating. Leanne was put on life support.

"The next morning she was no better and the prospect of a heart transplant was mentioned to us for the first time," says Helen.

"I was horrified and totally numb. You get almost jellified with fear for your child. I had difficulty stringing a sentence together and could barely walk."

Leanne was listed as requiring a heart transplant at Newcastle's Freeman Hospital, a centre of excellence for the surgery.

She was put to the top of the waiting list as a "super urgent" patient (for those who are so unwell they cannot leave hospital) and the transplant team sought donors for her via computer link-ups, not just in the UK but worldwide.

The Nicholsons watched, waited and prayed in the hospital chapel that a suitable match would be found.

Doctors who organise transplant matches try to minimise the likelihood of the body rejecting a heart. Finding an exact tissue match between two completely unrelated individuals is very difficult, but a perfect match is not always necessary because rejection can be overcome through the use of immunosuppressive drugs.

"We were told that without a transplant we would be saying goodbye to Leanne within days," says Helen.

But within 48 hours, they received positive news. A possible heart was available.

"We stayed up all night on pure adrenaline, as you're told so many things might go wrong. You can't be sure of anything until the heart actually arrives," says Helen.

"That night was very clear and still and you could have heard a pin drop.

"At 2.45am I realised I could hear sirens shrieking from miles away. The transplant coordinator told us the good news with a huge grin on her face - it was Leanne's new heart, being raced to us by ambulance from a hospital in Cambridgeshire.

"We were in the foyer to see it arrive. A doctor literally ran in, carrying the box with the heart in it. But he found the time to look across to us and give us the thumbs-up.

"I'll never forget the feeling of intense thankfulness and awe. It was almost overwhelming to think that someone had died and that their organ donation was giving Leanne a chance of life."

All the Nicholsons know is that the heart came from a young woman who had died of a head injury. "Our gratitude to her and her family is limitless," says Robert.

The transplant was that morning and, to everyone's huge relief, it was a success. After several weeks of recovery, at first in a high-dependency ward, Leanne went home. Read the full story and view more pictures.

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