John McCafferty was warned that the best he could hope for was an extra five precious years
Saturday August 6,2011
By Adrian Lee
In the week of the first British patient to be fitted with a plastic heart, we meet the man who defied all doctors’ predictions nearly 30 years ago... WHEN John McCafferty was given a new heart he was warned that the best he could hope for was an extra five precious years with his family. In those days transplant surgery was still in its infancy and sadly many recipients of new organs didn’t live for long. It’s now 29 years since John was wheeled to the operating theatre at Harefield Hospital and he stands proudly as the UK’s longest surviving heart transplant patient. Still going strong he will be an inspiration to Matthew Green, 40, revealed this week to be the first person in the country to receive a fully artificial heart. In October 1982 John, now 69, was among the first 100 people in the UK to receive a heart from a dead donor. That month, as the Mary Rose was raised from the seabed off Portsmouth and Culture Club topped the charts, he was a desperately ill man. Diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a disease that weakens the heart, his weight had dipped to six stone and he was bedridden at his home, in Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire. In his younger days John had played rugby and football and it was only when he became breathless while serving an apprenticeship that he suspected there was a problem. “Eventually I became so ill my teenage son Iain had to carry me to the bathroom,” says John, who was a union leader. “There was no doubt I was going to die within a few months before I reached the age of 40.” He’d watched a TV documentary about heart transplants and read about the work of Christiaan Barnard but John admits he was apprehensive and thrilled when first told he was suitable for a transplant. “It was still quite an experimental operation and the doctors said that if I had a transplant they couldn’t promise me any more than five years. At that stage no one had survived for longer but I didn’t have to think twice. I wanted the chance to live and see my son grow up and get married.” John was placed on a waiting list and vividly remembers the day the telephone rang. “My mother was visiting from Scotland and I was just about to put a spoonful of her Scotch broth into my mouth when my wife Ann called upstairs to tell me an ambulance was on its way. In those days they had three patients on standby and selected the best tissue match, which happened to be me. “My last memory before surgery is being wheeled to the operating theatre and saying to my wife, ‘See you later.’ I was quite excited because my only other alternative was just to wither away. I’d sooner have died on the operating table.” John was in surgery for about eight hours as the heart of a road crash victim was transplanted into his body. “The first few weeks were crucial because of the risk of infection and rejection so I was wrapped in cotton wool. I suffered pneumonia but was allowed home for Christmas. The house had to be cleaned from top to bottom and we were told we should get rid of our pet dog, although my wife refused. At one stage there were signs of rejection but the drugs worked and once my new heart started pumping I could feel myself gaining energy every day.” John, who was given Guinness to drink to help build up his strength, was able to return to work but took early retirement before beginning a career in IT at Milton Keynes Hospital, which he enjoyed for 19 years. “My quality of life was transformed,” he says. “I was able to play bowls and I competed in running and the long jump in the British Transplant Games. A year after my transplant I walked from my home to Harefield, about 60 miles away, to raise funds and ran half-marathons. I used to swim 80 lengths to get fit. “The cost of the surgery then was about £30,000 but you can’t put a value on life.” He never discovered the name of the donor, a man in his 20s from Essex. “If I’d traced his family I might have brought back painful memories for them but I am forever grateful. I feel that a little part of the donor is living inside me.” In 1991 John’s nephew Steven Paterson, now 33, who was suffering from the same heart condition, also had a transplant. JOHN, who still takes drugs to fight rejection, says: “It’s an incredible operation and I do as much as I can to encourage people to carry organ donor cards. It’s awful that people are dying while waiting for transplants. “When I had my transplant I never imagined I would still be alive all these years later and would become a grandfather. Having a transplant made me appreciate life more.” In two years’ time he will become the world’s longest surviving transplant patient, replacing an American man who died a few years ago after living another 31 years. He succumbed not to heart disease but cancer.
John says: “I visit Harefield occasionally and in the room for transplant patients and their families there’s a board with the name of the longest survivors. Over the years I’ve got to the top. Every extra year has been a bonus but it’s also sad because I’ve lost people who became friends. I was the 41st to have a heart transplant at Harefield. “Being the longest survivor is a position I never really wanted to be in but I’m a living tribute to Sir Magdi Yacoub and all the other heart transplant surgeons. When I meet transplant patients I want them to think, ‘If he can live for 29 years so can I.’”