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05 Oct 2022

"Life is so precious and until my experience I never fully understood the importance of organ donation"

Laois resident Gillian Curtis who helped launch Organ Donor Week tells her heart transplant story

"Life is so precious and until my experience I never fully understood the importance of organ donation"

Gillian Curtis, third from right with nephew Finn, her mother Mary, husband Nigel, her father John, and sister Paula at the national launch of Organ Donor Awareness Week.

My name is Gillian Curtis and I am 42 years old living now in Portlaoise and a native of Athy Co Kildare. I received my heart transplant in 2019 at the Mater Hospital.
I was in hospital for a routine procedure when it was discovered I had an enlarged heart. I was kept in for further investigations. While this was happening my brother Martin passed away from Sudden Adult Death Syndrome. He was away at college at the time. He was only 18 years old and the best brother anyone could of asked for. This devastated our family. I was allowed out for his funeral but had to return where I was fitted with an ICD (implanted cardiac defibrillator). I was diagnosed with hyper trophic cardiomyopathy .

I continued leading a normal life. Only going back to hospital for appointments, check ups and monitoring for 10 to 15 years. It is only looking back now I realise my quality of life was deteriorating.
Myself and my husband were planning to start a family but after five miscarriages and few rounds of IVF my consultant at the time encouraged me to stop. It was discovered I had acute heart failure with an extremely low cardiac output.

Gillian spoke at the Organ Donor Week in Dublin. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.

My consultant put me forward for an appointment to meet the Transplant Team.

I continued to live life and travel. I even took a year out from my job and we travelled to Spain, Thailand and Germany in 2018. My wonderful husband did a lot of work researching where to go with less hills and short distances to compensate for my health. We came home for Christmas and I got a call from the Mater Hospital with a cancellation appointment to come and meet the transplant team.

I went with the intention of a quick chat. This turned into a five month stay as I was advised not to leave the hospital after tests proved I was in poorer health than I realised.

While in hospital my health seriously declined. From being independent, to being put on a drip to waking up one day connected to a VAD (ventricular Assist Device). This is a machine with four tubes which connects to my chest to helps pump blood to the heart chambers and around the body. It is what kept me alive while waiting for my transplant. I could not do anything for myself without the help of 3/4 medically trained staff.

I was completely dependent on care throughout my stay.
I had two false calls before receiving my transplant on the third. My recovery was slow as I had to learn how to walk again and build myself up but the relief and emotions cannot be explained in words. So happy and relieved but also very emotional for my donor and my donor's family.

I feel great now. I enjoy walking, tennis and spending time with my loved ones , especially my two nephews. Covid has held me back a little but I look forward to getting back to work in a wonderful school where I work as an Special Needs Assistant.

It took me a long time to process all that I have been through and what my family went through. I found it difficult to put into words my gratitude to my donor but eventually I found a way to put words on paper as I sent an anonymous letter to my donor's family.

I owe it to my donor's family to live the best life I can and to my brother who didn’t get the chance that I was given.
The staff at the Mater Hospital have been amazing. For five months they cared for me with such kindness and dedication. My husband, parents, sister, brother in law, nephews, family and friends are amazing and the support they gave me can never be repaid.

Gillian Curtis with Robert McCutcheon,Chairman, IHLTA, Mary McGarry, a lung transplant recipient from Blanchardstown, Prof Jim Egan, Respiratory Transplant Consultant Mater Hospital, Dublin.

Life is so precious and until my experience I never fully understood the importance of organ donation. It is a gift of life. Please discuss and share your wishes with your family. I hope my story can start the discussion as it did with my own family and friends.

Organ Donor Awareness Week 2022 campaign which will take place from 23-30 April and is organised by the Irish Kidney Association in association with the HSE’s Organ Donation Transplant Ireland. 

More at www.ika.ie/donorweek2022

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