Transplant recipient’s tears of joy
Jim’s heart disease journey spans nearly four decades and includes a heart attack, two cardiac arrests and a heart transplant. None of this however, has dampened his enthusiasm for life.
Jim spent most of his early working life in the air. A top dressing pilot in New Zealand and overseas, flying was his passion.
And when he wasn’t flying, he was fulfilling another passion – playing the trombone in a brass band. In fact, it was during band practices, back in 1983, that he first became aware of trouble with his heart.
“At marching practice I was getting what I thought was indigestion, but it went away once I stopped marching.”
“That test showed I was having heart problems,” Jim recalls. “And pretty soon after that I went to hospital with chest pain and I had the heart attack there. As I understand it I lost about two thirds of my heart muscle. It was pretty major.”
Heart attack forces change of profession
The heart attack meant a major change for Jim: he was no longer allowed to hold a pilot’s licence and was forced to give up flying.
“Being a pilot was a pretty good job and I enjoyed it. Having to give that up was tough.”
He got a job with the Marlborough District Council as a weed control inspector. He was also referred to Wellington for a heart bypass operation.
“I had that surgery and I lived pretty normally for quite a number of years.”
Not one to stand still, Jim had another career change a few years after his surgery when he and his wife bought a small farm in North Canterbury.
It was in 1990 that Jim suffered his next major heart event. At the time he was a member of the Territorial Airforce Brass Band and was performing at the Commonwealth Games in Auckland.
“I was in a parade, marching in the front rank, up Queen St when I had a cardiac arrest.”
With the parade in full swing and streets shut off, it was tricky for the ambulance to reach Jim, but fate was on his side.
“I was a bit lucky – one of the members of the band was a fireman and he was right behind me and he knew CPR. There was also a nurse standing on the footpath where I landed. So between them they were able to keep me going until the ambulance arrived.”
After spending a couple of weeks in Auckland Hospital, Jim was flown back to Christchurch Hospital where he stayed a little longer before returning home. Once again Jim’s heart event triggered another life change.
“We decided we should make the best of life, so we sold the farm and bought a large motor home. My wife and I cruised all around the country for eight or nine years, playing golf and working for different people, driving tractors on farms and things like that.”
ICD after second cardiac arrest
They were still living life on the road 10 years later, when Jim had his second cardiac arrest while reading his newspaper one morning in the motorhome.
“I ended up on the floor, underneath the table. My wife couldn’t do anything, she couldn’t get me out of there. She rung 111, and a big strong ambulance lady came along and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and yanked me out, did whatever they do and got me round again.”
Jim was flown from Palmerston North to Christchurch hospital, where his cardiologist organised for an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) to be inserted.
He was well aware how lucky he’d been. “They reckon the chances of surviving a cardiac arrest outside of hospital aren’t all that good, I’ve survived two outside hospital. So I must have meant to still be here!”
Heart transplant the only option
After his second cardiac arrest, Jim’s heart deteriorated quickly. Just a couple of months later he was told the only option was a heart transplant.
The then 61-year-old was assessed and added to the transplant waiting list. He and his wife gave up life on the road and returned permanently to Christchurch to prepare for the operation and wait for a donor heart.
It turned out to be a long wait.
“When I got assessed they told me you couldn’t come onto the waiting list unless you were in your last year of life. I was on the list for a bit over 11 months. I remember by that stage thinking, ‘Crikey, you haven’t got much longer left.”
When the call finally came things happened very quickly. “I got a call from Greenlane hospital to say a taxi would pick me up in half an hour. And my wife was out walking! Luckily she arrived back in time and it just all happened. Next thing I’m up in Auckland getting prepared, and I don’t remember much until after it.”
Emotional recovery after heart transplant
He admits that the recovery period was sometimes very emotional.
“For a little while after the transplant I was a bit tearful, I was still in hospital and I was pretty crook. I was asked if I’d like to see a counsellor. But I was crying with happiness because everyone had done so much for me. I was tickled pink that it had happened, because I really didn’t think I was going to make it through. I didn’t think they’d find a heart in time.
The pathologist in the hospital confirmed Jim’s suspicions.
“I went along to have a look at my heart afterwards and the pathologist told me I wouldn’t have made Christmas. I’d had the transplant in November. So my heart was definitely on its last legs.”
Jim then spent three months in Greenlane’s Hearty Towers recovering from his surgery with other transplant patients, a process he found very helpful.
“You’re amongst all these other people facing the same problems, and spouses and carers can all share problems too. It makes your problems pretty easy really, because it’s never hard to find someone worse off than yourself.”
“There’s this new heart beating away”
Jim noticed the benefits of his new donor heart straight away.
“All of a sudden there’s this new heart beating away and you can feel it pushing the blood through the body and you didn’t have any of that before. Everything was a struggle and then it isn’t a struggle anymore.”
Along with a new heart, Jim got a new lease of life. Four years after surgery he represented New Zealand at the World Transplant Games in Bangkok, winning a silver in the golf and a gold medal for pistol shooting.
“I don’t know how I managed to do so well at the shooting, as one of the drugs I take gives you the shakes.”
It’s been 17 years since the transplant and the now 78-year-old is still going strong. He bought an e-bike two years ago, and has since clocked up more than 3,000 km.
He says the only real lifestyle changes he had to make after the transplant was taking lot of medication and making sure he followed the specialist’s orders in regards to diet and infection control measures.
But, Jim says, the rules aren’t too hard to follow. “And they’re better than being dead, that’s for sure!” he adds with a laugh.
Shared March 2019
Jim passed away peacefully on 14 November 2019.
The Heart Foundation extends its condolences to Jim's family and friends. We are grateful to them for letting us keep his story on our website to support others on a heart disease journey.