For many patients and families in our community, organ donation means a second chance at life. Thanks to the incredible generosity of many families, the RCH has recently had the privilege of performing its 200th heart transplant.
The first paediatric heart transplant was performed in October 1988, and was considered pioneering for this country. Since then, it has taken the RCH 22 years to achieve 100 heart transplants and just over 10 years to perform the next 100.
Our Cardiology Department is now home to the National Paediatric Heart Transplant Centre and over three decades has helped patients like Scarlett McGowan.
Scarlett, who became unexpectedly unwell at just a few months old, was flown to the RCH from Geelong Hospital in full heart failure. Doctors at the RCH later diagnosed her with Dilated Cardiomyopathy which meant that her small heart muscles were stretched and unable to properly pump around the body.
Little Scarlett was placed on the waiting list for an urgent heart transplant and to increase the chance of a suitable donor becoming available in time, Scarlett was listed for transplant with a heart from an incompatible blood type.
“To start with we thought that it could never work, I could not get my head around the fact that it was even an option. However, as her condition could not be fixed with medication or surgery, it was the only choice” Scarlett’s mum Sam said.
“We were told about the ABO mismatch heart being something that we might need to consider and understood it would be an Australian first. But Scarlett was so unwell we had to consider all the options available to her.”
Scarlett’s mum described the procedure as putting a new engine into an old car.
“Scarlett had colour in her that we had never seen before, this was because her new heart was pumping the blood round her whole body properly.”
“With her new heart, Scarlett can keep up with her friends she can take part in normal activities.”
Scarlett became the first child in Australia to receive an ABO incompatible heart transplant and now, she is about to start high school.
“We are thrilled to see Scarlett start high school. It has been quite an emotional time for me as her parent. We are so grateful that she is well and living a full life,” Sam said.
“Scarlett is excited to get into the school kitchen. She is a keen baker and a great cook! She is looking forward to science and woodwork as well as spending time with her friends and making new ones.”
Professor Jim Wilkinson was the Director of Cardiology for the very first heart transplant at the RCH and says that over 30 years, advancements in technology have allowed us to provide care for more patients like Scarlett.
“The transplant service has grown and prospered since its establishment and I’m incredibly excited to see where it will go in the future.”
“There have been many changes in the management of transplant patients and the changes in technology that emerge certainly bring dramatic changes in the practice of medicine,” Jim said.
“Improved medications with less problematic side effects and the availability of mechanical support with ventricular assist devices (VAD) to support patients while waiting for a suitable donor organ, have been significant.”
“When we started the program the expectation was that transplantation might give our patient’s an extra ten or fifteen years, (although we were optimistic that this would improve). Now, we have survivors who are more than thirty years post-transplant, many of whom have reached adult life, married had children and are pursuing successful careers.”
While the journey isn’t over for Scarlett, who takes daily medication and attends the RCH for regular check-ups, blood tests and biopsies, her mum Sam, remains incredibly grateful to the RCH team.
“It’s so hard to put into words what I feel for the staff at the RCH. Without their dedication, expertise and care Scarlett would not be here today. Just saying thank you doesn’t feel like enough.”
“We are beyond grateful for all they have done and continue to do for us. We are incredibly fortunate to be able to share Scarlett’s story and also raise awareness for organ donation to honour everyone at the RCH and of course, the family and donor who gave Scarlett a second chance at life. She will live her life to the fullest for them as well as herself.”