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Student from Finchley Church End calls for more organ donors after life-saving heart transplant operation at 27
When the phone rang at 2.20am on a Wednesday morning, Lisa Barnett was told she had 20 minutes to pack her bag - the ambulance was on its way.
She was about to be rushed to hospital for a risky heart transplant that would either save her life or leave her dead on the operating table.
The 27-year-old had been living with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a type of heart disease, since she was diagnosed at the age of 14 - on the same day her sister and mother were also diagnosed.
Despite signing up to the organ recipient register, which has a six-month average waiting list, just 11 days earlier, Lisa and her family got the unexpected news they had been hoping for – a suitable match had been found.
And three weeks ago, the psychotherapy student had the operation which effectively cured her heart problem and has given her a new lease of life.
Now recovering at home, the former Jewish Free School student, from Church End, Finchley, wants to encourage more people to opt in for organ donation and increase awareness of cardiomyopathy.
Lisa was just 14 when her 15-year-old sister went to the doctors complaining of a constant shortness of breath and fatigue – a problem both sisters had suffered with their whole lives.
Doctors diagnosed the heart disease and the rest of the family was checked for the hereditary illness, sparking the same discovery in former Warwick University student Lisa and her mother Jane.
Over the next ten years, Lisa suffered numerous health issues including a stroke and uncomfortable atrial fibrillations, when the heart fails to beat at a regular rhythm.
She said: “In a way we had all become used to it. It has been a part of me my whole life. My friends and I would joke about it and we’d have a laugh when they came to see me in hospital. For some time I felt like I was just waiting for my heart to give in at any time so I was making the most of every day.”
Lisa was having regular medical check-ups and, at the age of 23, the possibility of a heart transplant was put forward by doctors.
She initially went on the transplant list but was told that, due to complications with her lungs, she had a one in five chance of failing to make it through the operation.
She pulled out of the process before a more serious deterioration in her health prompted a quite literal change of heart.
She said: “I was terrified and convinced I would be that one in five. I was offered a heart at one stage but I couldn’t go ahead with it.
“It was in the following months that I began to realise just how bad I was and something changed in me. I went back on the list and felt relieved – I was excited about the possibility of having the transplant.”
When the phone call came just 11 days later, the initial rush of adrenalin was tempered by a realisation of what the news meant.
Lisa said: “It did hit me that this meant someone had died. I took some time to think about that and, after the operation, when I came to, I burst into tears.
“It is hard to think about – it’s almost too much to comprehend. I am keen to find out who the donor was and to thank their family.”
Lisa plans to write to the hospital to find out more about the anonymous individual, but for now she is recovering at home after the life-changing operation.
Although she is still in the early stages of her recovery, the art enthusiast says she is already noticing a huge difference in her quality of life.
She said: “It has changed everything and it’s made me realise how affected I was before. I can get up from a chair without getting out of breath, I can walk around at a good speed, I can use the Tube now because I can actually walk up stairs.
“My muscles used to ache because they weren’t getting enough oxygen but now they ache because I can actually use them. The transplant has allowed me to do things I couldn’t even contemplate before.”
Despite the success of the operation, Lisa is aware of the reality of the situation. Recipients of heart transplants live on average for ten years before they are likely to encounter life-threatening complications.
But the operation has given her a valuable extension to her life expectancy and she wants to spread awareness of her experience in the hope it will encourage more people to register for organ donation.
She said: “What if it was your brother, your mother, your daughter or son who was going to die? If you would accept an organ for yourself or your family, you have to be on the list in my opinion.
“Anyone could need one and there are not enough organs – people are dying.”
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