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Celebrating 70 years of the NHS

As patients, their families, staff and volunteers come together to celebrate 70 years of NHS care, patients reflect on how specialists at Royal Brompton and Harefield hospitals have saved their lives and provided lifelong care in the first of our series of blogs from patients.




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Cathryn Ramsden

Cathryn Ramsden, 43, underwent cardiac surgery at Royal Brompton hospital in 1978, when she was three


I was born with a hole in my heart and a leaking aortic valve; my dad was in the army and we were based in Hampshire. 


We were referred to Royal Brompton Hospital for my surgery; in 1978 it was cutting edge stuff. 


My consultant cardiothoracic surgeon was Mr Christopher Lincoln and my cardiologist was Dr Michael Joseph.


Obviously, I was very little, so my main recollection is eyeing the gorgeous rocking horse in the hallway of the waiting room.


But my parents remember the experience much better. I can see how traumatic it would have been for them.


Apparently, the night before my surgery we stayed up praying. I sat up and said, “I’m going to see Jesus tomorrow."


The waiting game


This obviously alarmed them! On the day of the operation itself, the staff – a little bizarrely – advised my parents to go to Harrods to look at the fish display.


The nurses told them to go and look at the fish and come back and tell them about it – I’m guessing this was the staff’s go-to distraction technique for anxious parents!


I was still in surgery when they got back. They didn’t know why. And in those days doctors didn’t give much detail to patients or parents.


My mum and dad were just hugely grateful when I came through and after a few weeks, they could at last take me home.


Years later, I had a conversation with our family doctor. He made a comment about how I had ‘died on the table’. Apparently, my heart had stopped and the doctors had to work to save me.


So, I had ‘gone to Jesus’. But thankfully, I had come back!


Annual check-ups


I do have lots of memories of those annual check-ups at Royal Brompton Hospital and the squillions of trainee doctors who were always present for the consultation. They used to intimidate me a lot as a child, the ‘X-ray ladies’ were much nicer.


I never really remember feeling any different afterwards - my parents did an amazing job at making sure I wasn't treated very differently. I still did PE like all the other kids, only with considerably less talent but that was nothing to do with my heart.


My life as a child was very normal - I don't recall any time that my heart condition really impacted my life as a child.


But I know if you spoke to my mum she would have another story.


When we talk about it now, mum says that whenever I had a fever, my parents would be able to see my heart pumping in my chest; I think for her my childhood must have been an anxious time.


To her credit, my mum never passed her worries on to me. For example, I always had a really positive view of my scar. We called it my 'zip' and it was always made clear to me that I was alive because of this zip so we loved it. 


It doesn't bother me in the least. It's very pale now but it tans when I tan, it gets white in the winter. It has never occurred to me to try and hide it.


Becoming a mum


Eight years ago, I gave birth to a little boy and this gave me more insight into what things must have been like for them. My condition is genetic so there was definitely a significantly increased chance that 'something' would be wrong with his heart.


We had an in utero scan when he was about 18 weeks old to see if his heart looked healthy. His heart did look healthy but doctors kept reminding me that they wouldn't know until he was actually born.


When the doctor came to do the routine check the next day, my heart was in my mouth I was so nervous. I asked her twice about his heart and she looked puzzled until I explained and she reassured me. I had a bit of a cry. 


But honestly, I didn't believe he was fine until my Mum saw him the next day and told me that I had never looked as pink and healthy as he was looking and that I didn't need to worry any more.


I am unceasingly grateful for his strong little heart.


Enjoying life


I lead an entirely healthy, normal life. As well as being a wife and a mother, I'm obsessed with running (I run half marathons) and I blog about it at myheartscontentblog.com. I also love cycling, hiking, camping, skiing and being outside. This September I’m starting a PGCE qualification so that I can teach primary school children.


My family and I have just moved back to the UK after seven years in California – yes, Royal Brompton Hospital gave me the chance to live in San Francisco! My parents live nearby and I get to see them every week.


My heart remains healthy. It had a little wobble after my son was born – it remained fine during pregnancy and birth but postnatally my aortic valve got bigger, to the point where my cardiologist in America thought I might need a valve replacement before very long.


Over time it went back to its normal size, but we chose not to have more children, so I have my little boy and the most amazing ginger cat. Now I’m back in the UK and I have returned to Royal Brompton Hospital for my regular heart check-ups.


My gratitude


My mum is thrilled that I’m back at what she regards to be the best heart hospital in the UK; understandably, she’s a big fan.


I admit that when I walk through those doors, next to the café where the nice women sold ham and white-bread sandwiches in the 1980s – part of me always shakes a little when memories of being very little and feeling ill come flooding back.


Now I'm older and a mother, I'm just so incredibly grateful for all that Royal Brompton did for me.


In 1978, this must have been major, scary surgery. But the doctors did it. I'm alive. And I really am so very grateful.


My life is full and gorgeous, all thanks to this hospital.

 

Andrew Watson
Andrew Watson

Andrew Watson, 49, is a patient of both Royal Brompton and Harefield hospitals. He has cystic fibrosis and underwent a lung transplant last year. 


I’ve been coming to Royal Brompton since I was 16, when I left the care of Great Ormond Street Hospital. 


I have cystic fibrosis (CF), as did my younger brother Nic. Initially, I was under the care of Professor Margaret Hodson, before her retirement.

 

When I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at birth, it came as a real shock to my parents as very little was known about the condition in those days. 


They learned quickly and were very caring and attentive, following all the guidance from the CF team which, amongst other things, involved twice daily physiotherapy and a mountain of drugs. 

 

As boys, Nic and I were very lucky in terms of our health and in truth, we didn’t let it affect our lives too much. We were both very sporty, playing rugby, football, cricket and tennis and living life to the full, albeit coughing a little more than all of our friends.

 

After school and university, I moved to London in my early 20s and I was carving out my career in property and enjoying a good social life, whilst still playing sport on a regular basis. I was still very well and was keen not to let CF affect my life. 


My big goal was always to stay out of hospital. I really didn’t want to be admitted for two-week courses of intravenous antibiotics as I was too busy working and enjoying myself doing more exciting things.


A turning point


However, when I was 33, Nic died of complications from CF. He was only 29. 


It was obviously devastating because he was more than just a brother, but a best friend. He had suffered more than me throughout our lives yet even so, it was a massive shock that he lost his life at such a young age. 

 

It made me realise how fragile life can be and that going forward I must pay even closer attention to my own condition. I needed to take my own wellbeing, and CF, even more seriously to ensure that I gave myself the best possible chance. 


From that moment onwards, I knew that at some stage in my life I must get on the transplant list – before it was too late to help me. 

 

As time went on and I became older my lung function began to deteriorate, as the doctors had predicted and expected. I had to stop playing cricket and eventually golf too. I could no longer make it round a golf course, even with a buggy. 

 

I found myself spending more time in Royal Brompton for intensive therapy, which included physio and intravenous drugs. 


By the time I was in my mid-forties, I was becoming far more reliant upon oxygen, both for sleeping and for daily activities, although I tried not to let it affect me too much. 


I continued to do as much as I possibly could. I was determined to keep active and keep fighting. I was still working full time, but life was becoming increasingly difficult. 

 

In March 2017, after a few hospital admissions, I took a huge turn for the worse. I was admitted to the Royal Brompton. 

 

At that point, even having a shower would leave me completely exhausted.

 

Even with all the best efforts of the medical staff at Royal Brompton and my own oxygen-assisted exercise, my lung function readings were 17 per cent and 35 per cent of the predicted readings of a ‘normal’ person of my age, weight, height, size.


The hope of a lung transplant


I couldn’t function without being hooked up to oxygen. I ended up staying at Royal Brompton for ten weeks as I awaited my only hope – a lung transplant at Harefield.

 

I wasn’t scared. It was very comforting to know that I was in the specialist CF ward at the Royal Brompton, being well looked after and, all being well, would be going to one of the best possible places for a transplant. These people who were the experts. This is was what I focused on. 

 

When eventually the call came early one morning to advise that a pair of donor lungs had become available, I was rushed to Harefield. I was well looked after and made to feel very welcome. 


The staff were calm, friendly and had a quiet confidence, which was very reassuring. I felt as relaxed as I possibly could have done in the circumstances.

 

The whole process at Harefield is extremely professional and very well thought out to make it as stress free as possible for the patient. Even the ‘holding area’ outside the operating theatres has birdsong playing to a backdrop of floral designs and soothing colours.

 

Thirty-two hours after going into theatre I woke and my new life began with my new lungs. The road to recovery has not always been straightforward. There was pain initially but it was a small price to pay. 


Thanks to the staff at both Royal Brompton and Harefield hospitals, plus all the exercise that I was encouraged to do, plus the myriad of new brightly coloured pills to pop, a year on and I feel transformed. It really is something of a miracle.

 

I have gone from being completely oxygen dependent to, at the latest count, having lung function readings of 125 per cent and 111 per cent of the predicted readings of a ‘normal’ person, which is so much better than the average. It is quite incredible and beyond my wildest dreams. I have been very lucky in so many ways. 


My transplant has allowed me to quite literally have a new life and it is simply amazing with my new lungs. I can now walk for miles, I can run again and I feel like a youngster.

 

There is, of course, always the possibility of organ rejection, for who knows what might happen in the future yet I am determined to give my new lungs the best possible chance.


I can only thank my donor, who I later found out was a woman much younger than me, for deciding to become an organ donor, and the family members who agreed with that decision. I am eternally grateful and they are forever in my thoughts.    

 

The brilliance and care of the medical staff

 

This has only been possible because of the brilliance and care of all the medical staff at both the Royal Brompton and Harefield hospitals.

 

At Royal Brompton, the CF specialist team comprising Dr Khin Gyi, Dr Nicholas Simmonds and Dr Andy Jones; dietitian Sarah Collins; physiotherapists Helen Parrott, Zelda Beverley and Charlotte Gray in more recent times, have all been fantastic,


In addition to being thoroughly professional and dedicated in their roles, they have become more like friends. I guess I have been going there long enough so I have got to know them all quite well over the years.

 

The nurses cannot go without mention. They were always willing to help, highly professional and worked such long shifts too. They are like the glue who stick everything together.

 

At Harefield Hospital the levels of care, knowledge and professionalism are exceptional and I cannot thank the team enough. 


I have had dealings with many of them both pre and post-transplant, from the unbelievably talented surgeons who perform such life-changing operations to the respiratory consultants Dr Martin Carby and Dr Anna Reed, and the transplant, respiratory medicine and nursing teams.   

 

It is a very special place. It was where my life was changed.


A more detailed account of Andrew’s experience is available on his website.


Join the organ donor register

 

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Steve Syer, 76, had a heart transplant in 1984 at Harefield Hospital, making him one of the longest surviving patients


My heart failed in 1984, just after the Christmas break.

 

I didn’t know what was happening – I was a man in my early forties who’d been previously healthy.

 

I’d only been back at work one day after the holidays when I got what I thought was the flu.

 

I felt really grotty – it was so bad I called the doctor who told me to stay in bed.

 

The next day I woke up and I could feel my heart hammering; I called my doctor again and I was taken by ambulance to my local general hospital.

 

By now it was clear something was very wrong: I found out my heart was failing due to viral cardiomyopathy (where the ventricles enlarge but aren’t able to pump sufficient blood).

 

Doctors tried stopping and starting my heart, but I don’t think it made any difference.

 

I languished on a ward for a few weeks, because they didn’t really know how to treat me. 

 

Eventually I was transferred to Bristol Royal Infirmary where I had an angiogram.

 

It was there that a doctor told me: ‘The only thing we can do for you is a heart transplant. What do you think about that?’


The truth was, I knew I didn’t have any choice. 


I never doubted the success


It sounds strange now, but from that moment on, when we said yes to the transplant, my wife Chris and I never ever doubted the success of the surgery.

 

I was rushed, blue lights blazing, to Harefield Hospital where I first met the surgeon, Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub.

 

I asked the nurse how I’d recognise him, and she said, ‘You will just know. He has a presence about him.’

 

It was true. He popped his head around the door, and we knew.

 

After talking to me for a little while, Magdi went quiet. Then he simply said the words: ‘We’ll do it.’

 

One day in February, we were told there was a heart for me and it was all systems go – I was prepared for theatre.

 

When I woke up, my new heart in place, I wasn’t on the intensive care unit; they had these specially air-conditioned rooms for transplant patients. We had to be completely isolated. The transplant team wanted to guard against any risk of infections.

 

They’re more relaxed now and understand the risks better, but in the ‘80s they were pretty strict: if you went out of your room you had to wear a mask.

 

During my recovery I got to know everyone well; the hospital became a second home. 


Magdi had an amazing presence – everyone on Rowan, the transplant ward, was in awe of him. He was extremely dedicated and set a high benchmark for everyone.


Returning home


After a few weeks, I returned home. I’d been on my back for six weeks. I’d left the careful controlled environment of Harefield to return to a house where the kids were cooking burgers, the place was covered in dust and the dog jumped up and licked me!


When I returned to work – I was a Rank Xerox engineer at the time – I think everyone felt worried. I had to persuade them I was the same person as before. They eventually relented and believed me, and I carried on working for another 18 years.


Of course, over the past 34 years, I regularly return to Harefield for check-ups.

 

I remember one time, I was teasing the doctor saying ‘Come on, get a move on, I’ve got to get back to tile my bathroom.’

 

The doctor was aghast: he said: ‘You can’t do that! Think of the germs!’

 

But I haven’t let myself be reined in by health worries, I’ve just carried on my normal life.

 

I was chairman of the Harefield Transplant Club – otherwise known as the Harefield Hamsters, which is for patients who have had, or are waiting for, either a heart or lung transplant – for about 13 years. This meant I was invited to all kinds of meetings and I got to know the staff in a different setting, which was nice.  They were always welcoming. It’s a very friendly hospital.


As part of that, I got to see more of Magdi. He’s a very humble man. At fundraisers, I’d hear people say to him, ‘Thank you for saving me!’ and he’d say, ‘I’m just doing my job.’

 

I don’t know many of the other patients now. But I was having a chat with someone in the waiting area the last time I had an appointment at Harefield. They asked, ‘How long is it now?’ and I replied, ‘Thirty three years.’

 

Someone who had just had a transplant overheard and said, ‘Really?’ He was so pleased. It was nice. I do think I give a lot of people hope.

 

The doctors can be pretty surprised too. My appointments are usually in August – just when the new influx of junior doctors come in. One doctor was so gobsmacked when he realised how long I’d been alive he could hardly believe it!

 

Of course it hasn’t been all plain sailing. My kidneys packed up a few years ago, so in August 2016 my wife Chris donated one of hers.

 

We also found out in 2007 I have Becker Muscular Dystrophy. They did a gene test when I started getting leg pains.

 

We’d had no idea before, as these tests simply weren’t available in the past. It’s a milder type than Duchenne, but it can weaken the heart.

 

My legs are giving out a bit now, but to be fair, I am 76.

 

But I have no intentions of giving up. I love camping in Cornwall, and adore spending time with my family.

 

As well as my two children, I have got to meet my six grandchildren and three great granddaughters. And another one is on the way!


The NHS – in particular, Harefield and Magdi Yacoub – has given me that gift.

  

That is priceless. 

Arthur Aptowitzer, 72, had heart surgery at Royal Brompton for his atrial septal defect (ASD) at the end of 1957 


I was 12 when I had my operation and of course I was scared. I remember that the girl who had the same operation just before me didn’t come through. So I knew it was major surgery, and risky.


It was just a year after the first successful operation of its kind was carried out at the hospital, and the NHS had only been in existence for nine years.


My doctor was Lord Brock, who pioneered both the hypothermia technique and the heart-lung machine, working with Mr Ben Milstein, who became famous as an early pioneer of open-heart surgery.


The operation worked, and soon I was thriving. The atrial septal defect had prevented me growing, so after the operation I was happy that I shot up in height from 4’5” to 5’6” … although all four of my grandchildren – who are aged between 13 and 17 – are taller than me!


I am glad to say that I have had a very full life. I still have my annual check-ups at Royal Brompton. I vividly remember it being 40 years since the operation, and celebrating being given a clean bill of health. It’s remarkable to think that I’m now on my diamond anniversary!”

Wilson

Wilson Da Graça has suffered with the lung condition cystic bronchiectasis since he was a child. Doctors told him his only hope was a lung transplant. At one point, Wilson, 35, wasn’t expected to make it – but last year, he received a new pair of lungs during a 12-hour operation.


I grew up in São Tomé, Africa. My mum used to worry about me all the time. I was always getting coughs with a lot of mucus that I’d have to spit out. I think the hope was I’d grow out of it. Nobody said anything about a serious illness.


In 2003, I moved to Portugal to study tourism, but unfortunately, in 2005, I got very sick with a chest infection. It got so bad I was taken to hospital and given Intravenous antibiotics. The doctors diagnosed me with cystic bronchiectasis – the symptoms are similar to cystic fibrosis. Lung infections cause damage to the bronchi and they become too wide, making the lungs build up mucus and infection.


In a way, it was a relief to find out what it was. But I also discovered there was no cure for bronchiectasis. I have the most severe form – which is progressive and can be fatal.


This was tough. But I felt OK; I was calm. The best way of treating any condition or disease is your own attitude. It’s vital you don’t get too low about it. I made the decision to remain positive. You have to live your normal life.


However, I made the decision not tell my mother about it. She was in São Tomé in Africa so I kept everything very vague when I spoke to her. She worried about every headache! It was easier this way. After all, she could do nothing. And I knew if she worried, I’d worry.


My wife Iglesia, who I met at university, supported me a lot. And my brother in law Teodoro was great too.


In 2006, I was in intensive care for seven days intubated and my brother was with me – he managed to make excuses about why I couldn’t speak on the phone!


At one point, doctors in Portugal mentioned a transplant. But it seemed too much. After all, I felt like I was getting better. In 2009, my wife had given birth to a little girl, Tatiana, who is now nine. I felt so well, my wife and I made the decision to move to the UK in 2011 – I am aiming to have a career in tourism, so this was a perfect way to improve my English.


I started working in Nando’s. It can be a busy and demanding job, but I managed. I worked for two years and I wasn’t sick. I thought, ‘Maybe my positivity is paying off’.


Unfortunately, in the winter of 2013 I started to get sick again. I was admitted to hospital three times with chest infections. I felt my lungs were weakening.


I was referred to Dr Carby at Harefield Hospital. He floated the idea of a transplant, just like the doctors in Portugal had. It was a scary thought, but at this point I could see my health was deteriorating.


I was using oxygen at night to help me function. In 2015 I was told I should be on oxygen around the clock. But I had to work to support the family. In the end, I increased the time I was on oxygen, I’d start at 8pm and stop at 8am. I still worked, but on a part-time basis.


The truth was, I was really struggling. Dr Carby told me my condition was getting too dangerous. In July 2016, the doctor told me I needed to be hooked up to the oxygen all the time. I also had some news for him. My wife was two months pregnant … Given the fact I was so poorly, he was very taken aback! But we were thrilled. We were looking ahead, being positive.


Early in 2017, I was listed for transplant. My wife was heavily pregnant at this point, and I could hardly breathe. The only chance I had now was a transplant. My little boy Thomas was born on 13th June 2017. Ten days later, Dr Carby told me my situation was becoming critical. He wanted me in hospital all the time, until a pair of lungs became available.


A few weeks after I was admitted, a pair of lungs did become available – but unfortunately, they weren’t suitable. So, I was left waiting again.


Over the years, I had been in hospital a lot, both here and in Portugal. But I’d been in for a few weeks – and then I’d come out. I always knew I’d get out again.


Spending time waiting for these lungs made me feel very low. There were a lot of questions in my head. Would the lungs ever come? 


Would I survive the operation? My wife had just had a baby … would I ever get to be a dad to him? I’d always been so positive, but this time I was in tears.


There were a lot of tears from my wife too. She was there with our daughter and this tiny baby of a few weeks –thinking she was going to lose me.  I missed my family so much.


The staff were worried about me as I was so flat emotionally, they decided to let me back home, on the understanding I had to be able to come in at very short notice if a pair of lungs became available.


So, I was out for a few weeks. But I started to get very ill again and couldn’t breathe and I was rushed back to Harefield.


They thought I wasn’t going to make it. I was placed on an ECMO machine which pumps and oxygenates a patient's blood outside the body, allowing the heart and lungs to rest. The doctors put me in an induced coma, but in August I was woken up: another pair of lungs had become available. Did I want them?


”Yes,” was my response. “I’m ready for a transplant.” The operation was scheduled for the evening. My wife was with me, with my baby boy outside with my mother in law. As I was prepared for the operation, the staff asked me if I wanted to see my baby boy. 


Shaking my head, I said, “No, I’ll see him afterwards.”


I caught the team exchanging glances – as if to say, ‘He seems confident’. And I was. I just knew. I knew I would come out again and see him.


The operation started at 9pm and went through until 9am.  


Apparently, it was a little more complex than the textbook operation. They thought they had lost me. But thankfully, I started breathing again.


When I woke up a few days later, every single one of the nurses who had been involved in my care came in my room to see I me waking. I felt like a celebrity.


The recovery wasn’t that easy initially. I had to be taken back into theatre for a small repair. I stayed in intensive care for week and a half, I’d been in bed a long time I needed a lot of physio, as I had been lying down for so long.


But I was determined. Incredibly, after that huge operation, I was out of hospital in two weeks. When the staff saw me walking about, they didn’t believe it was me. One person joked, “Are you Wilson’s twin brother?” I looked so well after having been so close to death.

It’s been about a year since the transplant. Now I can run and play with my daughter. I couldn’t even exist without oxygen before. It was terrible.


One day I was late for the bus – the bus was coming and I suddenly realised I could run –I did and I was fine. It felt amazing. There have been a few blips in my health, where I was taken into hospital – I had shingles and then pneumonia – but I recovered. Soon, I hopefully will be able to go back to work.


Every day I am mindful that although I am living, somebody else died. I think of the people who lost a loved one and who were generous enough in their grief to think about someone in desperate need, like me.


I want to say thank you. I’d love to speak the person’s relatives. I’d love to tell them how much the donation has meant to me, to be with my family and my wife, to appreciate life. I am waiting for the right moment to see if this is possible. I don’t want to intrude on their grief.

Hopefully, the fact I am living gives meaning to someone’s death; a new life.


I like to think of my donor in heaven, looking down and seeing me playing with my kids, feeling happy that his lungs are helping me be a father to my children.


That is how I imagine my donor.


Find out more about Organ Donation Week 2018 - Monday 3rd to Sunday 9th September https://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/

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