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Treasure chest

Treasure chest

A real life story of how one family’s loss was another’s salvation.

It’s a sunny midsummer morning when 43-year-old Geoff Bromley gets the call that saves his life. He’s feeling even worse than usual: weak and faint, fighting for breath. Last night his heart failed again, and his defibrillator jolted him back to life. Another last-minute salvation. Frightening, but at least he’s still alive.

At 9am, just as he’s about to head to hospital for monitoring, his mobile rings. He takes it out to the front yard to hear better – reception’s patchy in semi-rural Kirkham, New South Wales. It’s the hospital again. But this is not a routine call.

“Today’s your lucky day,” says a nurse’s voice. “We’ve got a heart for you, Geoff.” There is a pause, filled with birdcalls. “Are you sure?” he hears himself ask. “Certain,” she assures him. “No rush, but we’ll see you soon.”

Looking out the bedroom window, seeing her husband’s face light up, Michelle knows: this is it. Third time lucky, she thinks as they hug. Their bags are already packed.

•••

In a different hospital, another family is dealing with the worst news of their lives. Earlier this morning there was an accident. Their own loved one has died in hospital. His body is being supported by a ventilator, but brain death has been declared.

The national register shows this man is an organ donor. Despite their grief and shock, his family has agreed to meet with a trained support worker for a difficult conversation. They’ve given permission: organ donation can go ahead.

•••

Geoff kisses his three children goodbye, keeping things light. “Daddy loves you. We’ll see you in a few days.” Michelle’s mum Marina will babysit; her brother will drive them to St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, an hour away. Heading up the freeway, Michelle keeps the conversation cheerful. As they enter the long M5 tunnel she squeezes Geoff’s hand tightly.

Geoff was 37, Michelle heavily pregnant with their youngest son, when a doctor broke the news. What he’d dismissed as a lingering flu was severe cardiomyopathy – an inflamed, badly weakened heart. A stunned Geoff kept his diagnosis quiet for several weeks before telling his wife: without a heart transplant, his days are numbered.

At 9am... his mobile phone rings. It’s the hospital again. “Today’s your lucky day... We’ve got a heart for you, Geoff.”

Since then, Michelle has watched her husband’s terrifying decline, from a vibrant, healthy man to an extremely sick one – unable to work, drive, climb stairs, or carry his toddler to bed. He has collapsed and been jolted back to life a dozen times, twice in front of the kids. Without a new heart, any day could be his last.

In three years on the transplant waitlist, under the care of senior cardiologist Professor Peter MacDonald, Geoff has survived two false alarms. Twice he’s been called into hospital, prepped for surgery, his medical team poised to operate. But at the last minute, the donor’s heart was declared unfit for transplant.

Today won’t be like that, Michelle prays. Third time lucky.

•••

A heart transplant takes roughly 10 hours to organise, but every second matters. Working swiftly, transplant coordinators hit the phones. Dr Emily Granger, cardiothoracic and transplant surgeon at St Vincent’s, picks Geoff as a potential recipient for this donor. They’re a similar age and build, with the same blood type. Tested for compatibility, their blood serums reveal a perfect match.

Surgical teams are dispatched to retrieve the donor’s organs, which will offer new hope for other seriously ill people. Four St Vincent’s specialists depart to retrieve Geoff’s new heart. This operation will take two hours, the round trip almost twice that.

Later this evening Dr Granger, 39, will perform Geoff’s heart transplant. Now she heads home to see her husband and daughters, grab a meal, and steal a few hours’ sleep. It will be a long night.

At the hospital, Geoff’s family gathers for a nervous wait. His mum Judy, Michelle’s brother Gavin, sister Nadia and brother-in-law Gerry, with Geoff’s three interstate brothers in constant phone contact. They pass the long hours chatting, keeping Geoff’s spirits up.

Nurses check Geoff’s kidney and liver function, insert IV lines, administer drugs: antibiotics, immunosuppressants to prevent organ rejection, a sedative to help him relax. The family buys snacks from a vending machine, but nobody’s hungry. A counsellor visits. Geoff gives Michelle his wedding ring for safekeeping.

As night falls, Geoff is moved to a ward room where another seriously ill patient waits with his family. This man needs a lung transplant. The penny drops: he and Geoff must share the same donor. Not far away, they know, another family is saying goodbye forever to someone they love. Even this early, with the outcomes unknown, everyone in that room feels deeply grateful.

•••

At midnight, the nurses wheel Geoff down to surgery. His family accompany him, keeping up the cheerful banter right to the theatre doors. There Geoff poses for one last photo: a big grin, two thumbs up.

•••

Inside the brightly lit operating theatre, a 10-person team begins preparing Geoff for surgery. He knows he may not survive this night, but pushes that thought aside and jokes with the nurses. He’s met Dr Granger before, and her low-key friendliness inspires confidence. His body is shaved and swabbed with antiseptic solution.

•••

Geoff’s family heads to a Kings Cross pub for a few drinks to steady their nerves. Nadia tries to reassure Michelle. But it’s out of their hands now. All they can do is wait.

•••

At 1.40am, Dr Granger scrubs her arms and dons her surgical gown, headgear and gloves. Over her career she has clocked up almost 100 transplants, both heart and lungs. She gives her team the nod. The anaesthetist’s assistant tells Geoff to count backwards from 10. “One...” he says, and he’s out.

•••

Around 2am, Geoff’s mum and Michelle go to their hotel to rest, while Nadia and Gerry head home. Phones are kept by pillows. Nobody really sleeps. Michelle can hear sirens in the night.

Inside the brightly lit operating theatre, a 10-person team begins preparing Geoff for surgery. He knows he may not survive this night, but pushes that thought aside, jokes with the nurses.

On the operating table, it takes Dr Granger and her team an hour to open Geoff’s chest and remove his old heart. She cuts through skin and muscle, opens the breastbone using a sternal saw, and peels everything back to reveal Geoff’s sick heart: hugely swollen, tinged greyish, beating only faintly.

Geoff is connected to the heart- lung machine, and the blood vessels leading to his heart are clamped. Leaving the back walls of the two atria intact, Dr Granger cuts out and removes Geoff’s enlarged heart, which weighs almost a kilo. In his chest is a gaping hole. In the 15 minutes while his chest stands empty, she removes his defibrillator and pacemaker. If all goes well, he won’t need them again.

•••

A police car speeds through the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst, lights flashing and siren whooping. Inside is a large Esky, packed with ice. Geoff’s new heart has arrived, along with the lungs destined for his fellow patient in the next operating theatre.

•••

Michelle dozes fitfully on her hotel bed. She keeps checking her phone, but it’s too early yet for news.

•••

Dr Granger lifts Geoff’s healthy new heart from its sterile bag. It’s been on ice for two hours. She examines it closely for holes, runs cold blood through to flush it out. Now it’s off ice, she must move quickly.

In four neat sutures, she stitches in Geoff’s new heart: left atrium, right atrium, aorta and pulmonary artery. The clamps are removed. Fresh blood begins to flows. The heart gives a little wriggle, and it’s off, beating slowly. It’s given 30 minutes to recover.

As the new heart begins to take over, the heart-lung machine is gradually dialed down. When it’s beating by itself, Dr Granger wires Geoff’s sternal bones back together, then stitches him up. From ‘skin to skin’– first cut to last stitch – Geoff’s operation takes four hours. It has all gone perfectly. Dr Granger heads home for some well-earned sleep.

•••

The family gathers excitedly at Geoff’s hospital bed. He’s trying to talk, but his throat is blocked by the ventilator. 

Michelle’s mobile rings. Geoff’s out of surgery. The family rushes to his bed in intensive care. Michelle is shocked at his appearance – pale and puffy, with tubes and cables snaking from his mouth, chest and arms. Curling up beside his unconscious form, she holds him gently.

•••

Six hours later, Geoff begins to wake up. He’s groggy and confused, but notices a difference immediately: that heaviness in his chest is gone. His heart feels strong, like it’s beating out of his chest. He feels alive again.

•••

The family gathers excitedly at Geoff’s hospital bed. He’s trying to talk, but his throat is blocked by the ventilator. It’s Gerry’s idea to put a pen and paper in his hands. In a barely legible scrawl, Geoff writes: How’s Michelle?

Next: Who won the cricket? And then: Get me a lemonade! I’m so bloody thirsty!

They’re laughing and crying, all at once. That’s typical Geoff – cracking jokes to reassure them. From that moment on, they know he’s going to be OK.

•••

Four days later, Geoff is pedalling on an exercise bike. On day five, he walks kilometres of hospital corridors. On day 10, he’s allowed to go home.

One year later, Geoff’s back at work, hitting the gym, chasing his kids around. He’s got his life back. His family are all registered as organ donors.

Around 1500 Australians are waiting on organ transplant lists. You can record your decision on the Australian Organ Donor Register. It is important to tell your family members of your wishes. donatelife.gov.au

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