How a heart transplant has given Suzanne a future
Suzanne feared she might die, but now her life is "wonderful, amazing", thanks to an organ donor, as she tells Sarah Brealey.
“I can hardly put it into words,” says Suzanne Swinson, 61, about her heart transplant. “Suddenly you have a future again, whereas a few days before you had no future. It’s the most amazing thing.”
Suzanne had been an active woman, a keen hill walker and skier. So when a visit to her doctor with a cough led to the discovery that she had advanced heart failure, she was deeply shocked. “I thought, ‘Somebody has made a mistake.’”
Suzanne expected to have only a few years to live, so decided to make the most of it. She carried on walking, going to the theatre, and enjoying time with family and friends. She says: “When my energy levels decreased, I found other ways of doing the things I loved. My walks became shorter and my binoculars became larger.” As she became more ill, Suzanne took up gentler pastimes, like drawing and painting, and discovered talents she never knew she had.
Everyone has had a transplant, everyone was doing the best they could, it was really positive
Two years after her diagnosis, she was admitted to hospital in a serious condition. She knew a transplant was her only hope of life, and it was one that she desperately wanted.
The hardest part was being prepared for a transplant, but the heart turned out not to be suitable – once this happened twice in the same night – and on another occasion a heart couldn’t be delivered because of severe weather.
After five weeks on the transplant list, Suzanne received a new heart. Her joy was mixed with grief for her donor – whose identity she doesn’t know – and the sorrow the family must be feeling.
Three weeks later, Suzanne was able to return to her home in Bearsden, near Glasgow. She started walking again, gradually increasing what she did. Nine months later she returned to her job as a civil servant. She says: “Nobody has ever been so keen to return to work, and I received a wonderful welcome from my colleagues.”
After her transplant, it never occurred to Suzanne that she’d be able to do winter sports again. But as the anniversary of her transplant approached, she wanted to mark the occasion, and thought “I wonder whether I can…”
She took a few wobbly turns at an indoor ski centre, and never looked back. Gradually she increased what she could do, taking up cycling again, and though she wasn’t strong enough for curling at first, she could do that two years after the transplant. When she discovered that the World Winter Transplant Games were being held in the Alps in January, “It caught my imagination.”
She went on to win three medals for skiing, and her team (she was the skip) won gold for curling.
She says: “I met the most incredible, inspiring people. Everyone has had a transplant, everyone was doing the best they could, it was really positive.”
Suzanne, who is married with two grown-up sons, says she’s had a lot of support from family and friends. One of her biggest challenges, though, has been other people’s expectations. “The hardest challenge has been convincing people like my family to let me live an active life. The people around you don’t know what a person who’s had a transplant can and can’t do.
I feel quite determined to make the most of what I have been given
I feel quite determined to make the most of what I have been given, so I have carried my family on a quest to do as much as possible. But once I got over that, everyone has supported me really well.”
She’s very grateful to staff at the Golden Jubilee Hospital, where she had her transplant. And she’s been fundraising for the BHF as well as promoting awareness of organ donation. Suzanne says: “My donor is with me forever. I’ve never met their family but I know they have been through so much, and I am the gainer.”
Life now, she says, is “wonderful, amazing”. “I can do almost everything I could do before. I can’t walk up big hills any more, but I can get to the top if I drive to a high car park and walk from there. You can’t always do things in the same way, but you can adapt and do things differently.”