Breathing sigh of relief made easy by lung transplant

19:34, Jul 29 2014
Carolyn Heays
ON THE MAP: Carolyn Heays and husband Kevin put Kaikoura on the map. In May, Carolyn became the 190th person to receive a lung transplant in New Zealand.

Kaikoura's Carolyn Heays is number 190 on the list, and is proudly sporting a new pair of lungs.

The lung transplant process has made Carolyn and husband Kevin keen to spread the word about the importance of becoming a donor, and making sure those around you are aware of your wishes.

Carolyn returned to Kaikoura last week after three months in Auckland where she has been recovering from her major operation.

Her journey began 10 years ago, with the development of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

The illness for Carolyn was hereditary but triggered by smoking, and not helped by years of working in pubs and breathing second-hand smoke.

Carolyn first started to develop respiratory problems in 2004 which got progressively worse.


"It was definitely frightening," she said. "I could breathe in but not out. People used to call me Darth Vader."

At its worst, Carolyn could not even walk to the postbox. She had to give up bowls and the marching group, which had been two of her favourite pastimes. She was referred to a specialist in Christchurch who recommended she be assessed at the heart and lung transplant unit in Auckland.

She and husband Kevin flew up to Auckland every six weeks or so for the next year so she could be assessed before they finally put her on the active list for a transplant.

The couple were told the average wait would be about six weeks, but Carolyn had to wait three or four months before they finally got the call in May.

The process took longer for her because of her small frame - she had to have a small set of lungs to fit her. After receiving the call, they had two hours to get to Blenheim, to catch a Flight for Life plane straight to Auckland.

Carolyn and Kevin arrived in Auckland at 4am and she was on the operating table by 6am for the six-hour surgery.

She awoke at 3pm that afternoon with her new lungs.

She went straight into intensive care for a couple of days, then to the respiratory ward until the medical staff were happy to let her leave. Carolyn and Kevin spent the next 10 weeks or so at Hearty Towers, an accommodation facility for heart and lung transplant patients and their caregivers.

Carolyn was able to talk to plenty of other lung recipients at varying stages of recovery, which she says was a valuable part of the process. She was also able to give courage to others waiting for the operation.

Carolyn's operation was considered a great success by medical staff, but the side effects of the immune-suppressant drugs were a problem, with constant nausea seeing her in and out of hospital several times before they got on top of the issue.

Once the side-effects had finally diminished, however, she was given the all-clear to come home to Kaikoura for a week.

She went back on Sunday for a check-up but hopes to be home tomorrow and to then have weekly blood tests in Kaikoura. She will have to go to Auckland regularly, starting six-weekly, then have annual check-ups.

Sitting at home last week, Carolyn said she had been given a real mental boost to be in familiar surroundings again after three months in and out of hospital.

She is grateful to all those who sent her messages of support.

Carolyn and Kevin are urging people to make sure their families are aware of the process of becoming a donor.

"There are lots and lots of people, a very long list of people, waiting for a donor," Kevin says.

"People think they are a donor because it's on their licence, but in fact that's not how it works."

The family can veto someone's decision to donate, and a lot of families do so when they are faced with the decision as they are losing a loved one, whether it be for personal, emotional or cultural reasons.

So if you want to become a donor, it is vital you have the discussion with those who will potentially be making the decision for you when the time comes.

A patient will be declared "clinically brain dead" by two independent specialists, and that is when the discussion about donating will occur.

Because of the timing of the delicate conversation with distraught relatives, it is important they are clear about the patient's wishes.

The Marlborough Express