29.05.2024

Surreal moment transplant recipient, is reunited with her OLD organ

Jennifer Sutton, 38, was able to be reunited with her once vital organ as her heart was removed in a transplant operation 16 years ago

As reunions go, it perhaps does not get much stranger than to come face to face with your own heart.

And today she was reunited with the vital organ as it went on permanent display at a central museum, an experience she described as ‘surreal’.

Jennifer, who was just 22 when she received a new heart, which literally gave her a new lease of life at the Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire.

Describing seeing her heart in a museum display case, she said: ‘It’s extremely surreal to see it. I definitely have a fondness for it, although it caused so much trouble inside me.

‘I’m glad it’s in that jar and I have a new one.

‘I am grateful though as it kept me alive for 22 hears, it’s like an old friend.

‘I think it’s cool. It reminds me of everything I’ve been through and I hope that in time other people will look at it and consider organ donation .

‘I’m incredibly grateful to my donor, I can’t describe how grateful I am and will be forever, and my amazing surgeon’.

Jennifer, from Ringwood, Hampshire, does not know much who her donor except he was a man of 33 called Richard.

The heart can be seen by the public at the museum sited in the Royal College of Surgeons’ building in Holborn, central London, the home of thousands of anatomical exhibits.

The museum was at the centre of some controversy recently after it declined requests to allow the burial of the 7ft7in skeleton of an Irish giant, Charles Byrne, in the museum’s collection, although the skeleton is no longer on public display.

The heart can be seen by the public at the museum sited in the Royal College of Surgeons' building in Holborn, central London, the home of thousands of anatomical exhibits. Pictured: Jennifer Sutton's native heart exhibition. Visitors can follow her story in the Transforming Lives film where Jennifer and her surgeon Stephen Large tell about Jennifer's lifesaving heart transplant

The heart can be seen by the public at the museum sited in the Royal College of Surgeons’ building in Holborn, central London, the home of thousands of anatomical exhibits. Pictured: Jennifer Sutton’s native heart exhibition. Visitors can follow her story in the Transforming Lives film where Jennifer and her surgeon Stephen Large tell about Jennifer’s lifesaving heart transplant

The museum has just undergone a five year, £100million refit.

The success of the operation was all the more poignant as Jennifer’s mother died after a heart transplant when Jennifer was just 13.

Jennifer always assumed there must be something wrong with her heart, but things came to a crisis while at Portsmouth University, studying Animal Science

She said: ‘I always assumed I must have had something wrong because I was slower than other children. At school I struggled at sports.

‘But nothing was done about it until I went to university. I was in my second year when a friend at the time noticed I seemed to be struggling walking up hills, going blue a lot and getting breathless. My face was blue and my lips and fingers were too.’

How is a heart transplant performed?

A heart transplant is an operation to replace a damaged or failing heart with a healthy heart from a donor who’s recently died.

It may be recommended when a person’s life is at risk because their heart no longer works effectively.

A heart transplant may be considered if you have severe heart failure and medical treatments are not helping.

Conditions that may eventually require a heart transplant include cardiomyopathy – where the walls of the heart have become stretched, thickened or stiff.

A heart transplant needs to be carried out as soon as possible after a donor heart becomes available.

The procedure is performed under general anaesthetic, where you’re asleep.

While it’s carried out, a heart-lung bypass machine will be used to keep your blood circulating with oxygen-rich blood.

A cut is made in the middle of the chest. Your own heart is then removed, and the donor heart is connected to the main arteries and veins. The new heart should then begin beating normally.

She went to see a GP who immediately rang 999 and she was taken to hospital with suspected heart failure where she stayed for two weeks.’

She was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy, a condition where the heart becomes progressively stiffer over time, and struggles to pump blood around the body.

It was the same condition that her mother had.

She was given drug treatment, but went on the list awaiting surgery in 2007 and had a heart transplant in June the same year.

Describing the moment her heart was removed, she said: ‘I woke up and I was pink, my fingers had blood in them, my cheeks were warm and I could feel my heart beating – for the first time in, what seemed like, forever.’

‘I felt amazing, and I woke up and I thought «I’m alive» and I did a little dance.’

The new heart allowed Jennifer to pursue a career as a park ranger in the New Forest, an active career she would never have been able to have had she not had surgery, and pursuing active hobbies. She has proudly hiked up Snowdonia.

And it has allowed her to marry her husband, Tom Evans, a software engineer, in June.

Jennifer did not find the idea of her heart becoming a museum exhibit strange as her father worked as a researcher at the Natural History Museum, and she was happy to consent to it going on display.

The heart is preserved in Kaiserling solution, a mixture of glycerine, sodium acetate and distilled water.

It appears pale and narrower than a healthy heart, due to the stiffness of the heart muscle.

Her surgeon, Mr Stephen Large, said: ‘It’s extraordinary to have Jennifer’s heart on display.’ He added that he hoped it would encourage many more people to sign up for organ donation.

He said: ‘The actual issue is not a lack of funds but a lack of donors. It does not just benefit the recipient, but the family who have lost a loved one, and it’s a great comfort for them.’

Currently the wait for a heart transplant on the NHS is between 18 months and two years.

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