A heart-to-heart survival story

Surgery: An operation gets under way at the cardiothorasic unit at the Northern General Hospital.
Surgery: An operation gets under way at the cardiothorasic unit at the Northern General Hospital.
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A LOT of people don’t believe in miracles. Dennis Butler does.

The 72-year-old former steelworker has been close to death so many times he has no other explanation for his still being alive.

Lifelong Sheffielder Dennis lost a finger in a steelworks accident, suffers from skin cancer, has survived double pneumonia, swine flu, gall stones, kidney stones.

He also survived acute heart disease and was given a new lease of life with a heart transplant 12 years ago.

Small wonder he feels blessed but that wasn’t the feeling he got on one black day in March 2000.

“One day I woke up with incredibly swollen legs,” said Dennis, of Longley Park, Sheffield.

“I had no pain, nothing like that. It was as though I had a sports injury.”

Unfortunately for Dennis he was wrong: “I went to see my GP about it, and he asked me straight up, if I ever had a heart attack. I have never had one in my life. To my surprise, he told me there was something wrong with my heart.”

Dennis went to Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital that day, and it was there his worst fears were realised:

“I was diagnosed with a condition called amyloidosis. They told me I needed a new heart.”

He was given six months to live by his doctors.

That day in March almost 12 years ago which changed both his and his family’s lives – his wife Shela, his six children and 17 grandchildren: “Before the operation, I told my family I might never get a new heart. They were devastated.” He was put on the NHS waiting list a month later.

Not only did Dennis need a new heart, he had to see a psychiatrist for several months before the surgery. He also required a bone marrow transplant ready for him after it.

“It is standard procedure before and after a heart transplant,” he recalls. “The psychiatrist was to see if I was suitable, mentally, to survive the surgery. The bone marrow transplant was to prevent the body rejecting the new heart.”

Then, on November 30, 2000, he received a phone call from his surgeon Peter Braidley. Dennis remembers it all too well: “Peter told me, ‘Dennis, we have a heart for you. Oh, it is a good ’un.’” said Dennis with a smile.

“I am very lucky,” he says. “Oh, my luck, it feels boundless.”

And he feels even more fortunate knowing that it could have been given to someone else: “Listen, if there was a lad at 20, another lad at 20, and then there was me, who would you give it to?

“It is a no-brainer that: it has to go to one of them.”

After the surgery, Dennis still manages to defy the odds.

NHS figures reveal that only 57 per cent of heart transplant patients survive 10 years after surgery.

Dennis is now in his 12th year and he looks fit and healthy. He still gets regular check-ups with his doctors, as well as chemotherapy for his skin cancer.

It comes as no surprise that this has changed Dennis’s outlook on life.

“It sets you back on your feet,” he tells me. “I do better things now. I have unfinished business.”

Dennis is a keen artist and uses his talent to raise money for heart transplant charities in the UK by selling paintings.

From 2002-2005, Dennis studied for an Open University degree in Arts and Humanities and he enjoyed every minute of it: “I have always wanted to study at university. I realised I may not have that much time left.

“If it wasn’t for the heart transplant I wouldn’t have been able to see my 17 grandchildren and two great grandchildren grow up or be able to do many other things in life like start a degree in humanities.

“More people need to register as a donor if more people like me are to be saved and given a new chance of life.’

To join the register call NHS Donor Line 0300 1232323 (open 24 hours every day)

Transplant History

1902 Alexis Carrel surgically joins blood vessels opening possibility of transplant surgery.

1918 Blood Transfusions used regularly during World War One.

1967 World’s first heart transplant in South Africa. The patient lived for a further 18 years.

1968 First heart transplant in London by team of 18. Now over 300 heart transplants every year.

1980 First Donor Transplant Coordinators appointed to oversee organ donation and transplantation.

1983 First successful combined heart and lung transplant performed at Harefield Hospital.

1986 First successful lung only transplant in the United Kingdom.

1994 The National Organ Donor Register opens to meet growing demand for transplants

2005 UK Transplant merges with National Blood Service to form NHS Blood and Transplant.

2012 16 million people now on National Organ Donor Register

NHS Survival Rates After transplant

81% after 1st year.

78% after 2nd year.

70% after 5th year.

57% after 10th year.

Did you know?

122 patients had heart transplants.

126 on the waiting list.

183 days is the average wait for a heart transplant.

22% of registered donors do not wish to donate their hearts.

17 million registered as organ donors in the UK.