Heart transplant recipient grateful to be home for a family Christmas

Andy Darlington, a 58-year-old retired painter and decorator from Stoke-on-Trent is looking forward to spending Christmas with his family after receiving a heart transplant in October which saved his life.

Prior to becoming unwell, Andy led a healthy and active lifestyle, going on long walks with his wife Jenny and balancing the physical demands of his job with the physical demands of being a grandad to two young grandchildren.

This changed in July 2022 when he complained of chest pain, which he initially thought was a pulled muscle from working on decorating job. After seeing his GP, he was admitted to a cardiac ward at Royal Stoke University Hospital and then transferred to Harefield Hospital via a critical care ambulance as the situation began to deteriorate. Only 24 hours after his arrival at Harefield in the intensive therapy unit (ITU), Andy had a cardiac arrest.

At Harefield, Andy was placed on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) a machine which pumps blood through an artificial lung outside of the body when a patient’s own circulatory system is unable to function properly. He was also fitted with a BiVAD (biventricular assistance device) a pump which is attached to a patient’s heart to assist in pumping blood through the right ventricle of the heart to the lungs, and then through the left ventricle of the heart to the rest of the body.

His time in ITU was turbulent; being taken on and off the organ transplant list as his condition improved and then worsened, with several surgeries required due to internal bleeding. In September, after overcoming his second major bleed, Andy’s medical team gave him an ultimatum.

“They said ‘you need to get yourself fit enough to go through a transplant operation because that is one of your only options’. That was a huge motivation to get up and work with the physios to get as healthy as possible so I could survive an operation.”

Only 10 days after being given the good news that he was well enough to be given a transplant, a heart arrived at Harefield which was a perfect match for him. On Sunday 9 October, Andy was given a second chance at life.

One month later, Andy was discharged from Harefield and allowed to go home.

Photo of Andy and Jenny

Andy and Jenny return regularly to Harefield for his follow up appointments and, despite coming to the hospital as a result of his serious illness, associate it with positive memories and experiences with all of the staff they encountered.

Andy recalled, “There was always someone with me 24 hours a day while I was in intensive care. Everyone was just so kind and caring throughout my time at Harefield; the doctors, nurses, physios, mental health team, chaplains, I even got to know the cleaners and hospital maintenance team.

“Now when I come back for follow up appointments, people remember me and ask how I’m getting on. Even people who I don’t remember because I was ‘out of it’ at the time on medication!”

While Andy was at Harefield, Jenny was able to stay in family accommodation on site so she could be close by if she needed to get to the ward urgently.

Jenny said, “The family support was so helpful. As soon as we got here, we felt like we were in safe hands. The whole package of support is just amazing, you don’t have to feel isolated, there are so many people here ready to help you.

“Andy's illness was such a shock; it was like riding a runaway train that we could not get off as it hurtled through stations taking us frighteningly further from home and the life we once had.

“Harefield took charge and things became more controlled, eventually returned us home safe and sound.”

Reflecting on his transplant operation and now living with a donated heart, Andy said, “I initially didn’t cope very well from an emotional perspective. It felt like something alien was in my body, but it was all just in my head.

“Gradually over time, and with the help of the staff at Harefield, I have come to accept what happened to me and how my life has been changed by this new heart in my body. It’s still hard, yes this is an amazing thing, but I can’t help but keep thinking that someone has had to die to keep me going.”

Looking ahead to the future, Andy and Jenny are looking forward to starting to gradually return to the life they lived together before Andy became unwell, while acknowledging that the heart transplant signalled the start of a new chapter.

Andy said, “It is a new way of life, but it’s not worse, it’s just a case of adapting. I look at it that one book has come to an end and I’m now opening the introduction of a new book.

“I look ahead and I know that I’ve got to fight and I’ve got to be determined to keep pushing myself, because if I do that, I can reap the benefits. It’s a precious gift having a heart, and I am keen to work to make every day count. It could be very easy to sit at home and wrap myself in cotton wool, feeling sorry for myself, but it would be an injustice to whoever it was who gave me their heart.”

They have many things to look forward to in 2023, most notably, renewing their wedding vows in the spring at St Mary’s Church in the village of Harefield, led by one of the hospital chaplains, to mark their 35th wedding anniversary.

Jenny said, “We have entered into the whole life of Harefield Hospital. We wanted to renew our wedding vows here because it holds a special place for us and we want to mark this period in our lives.”

This Christmas, Andy and Jenny are looking forward to spending the day with their daughter and her husband, and their two grandchildren, aged two and three years old. Despite his illness and lengthy recovery, Andy said “I’m still on grandad duty, I’m sure the grandkids will be full of energy and excitement, and that keeps me going!”

Jenny said, “We cannot thank everyone enough at Harefield or ever be out of their debt. Without them we would not be looking forward to a family Christmas or a new year with hope and possibilities.”