My story

My body and me: how a heart transplant changed my life

Kieran Sandwell was born with a heart condition, developed heart failure in his 30s, then had a heart transplant. He tells Lucy Trevallion how it’s transformed his relationship with his body.

Kieran Sandwell on his 5,000 mile walk around the UK coast

At age three I had open heart surgery – my heart’s main arteries were the wrong way around.

My first memory of my body being different was age six, in the swimming pool on holiday. I remember kids pointing at my chest scar and saying: “urgh, what’s that?” I told them that I swallowed a snake. It seemed to get a good reaction so I used that quite a lot.

As time went on, that bravado faded. I just wanted to blend in, and would cover myself up.

Dealing with body issues as a teenager

At primary school I couldn’t do PE. All my friends were putting on new football strips and having fun, and I’d be left in a room to read. That’s when I started cursing this heart condition – when it meant I was missing out on fun. My heart attack at age 13 made me realise I might never have the normal life I thought I would.

When I left school, I went through a very manic phase – I thought ‘I must do lots very quickly before I die’ – followed by long periods of depression where I thought ‘what’s the point?’ I think my body issues were partly to blame for my depression. I was always ashamed and found it very difficult to talk to women, as at some point I’d have to tell them I have a heart condition and have this great big scar. I felt very alienated.

Kieran Sandwell as a child

As a child, Kieran remembers feeling that his body made him different from other children.

Learning to love your body for what it can do

But in my 30s I was diagnosed with heart failure and joined a support group. Once I talked to people who’d gone through something similar, I started looking at my body differently.

Bizarrely, when my body was at its absolute worst, that’s when I started to be proud of it. I remember one conversation when this guy said: “You should stop looking at what your body can’t do and start concentrating on what it can do.”

That had an immediate effect on me. Instead of hiding away, I tried to keep doing things. Even when I was on the transplant list I was going on walks – slowly. Then, luckily, I got a transplant in 2009.

We usually think our bodies should cope with everything, and we can take it for granted that they work

Straight after the transplant my heartbeat was so loud and totally in rhythm. I was completely besotted, and listened to it all the time.

I’m still as grateful as I was the first day after the transplant. We usually think our bodies should cope with everything, and we can take it for granted that they work. Every day I appreciate what my body does for me.

One of most noticeable things was having the energy to cope with the whole day. I remember being able to walk down the street and not get overtaken, and then me overtaking people. It was so much fun just to pick someone in the distance, and think: “I’m going to overtake them” and do it.

The transplant transformed my relationship with my body. Now, I love my body and I don’t think I ever did before. Everyone who visited me in hospital post transplant had to look at my scar; I wanted to show it off.

Kieran Sandwell meeting researchers studying zebrafish in Newcastle

During his walk Keiran met researchers studying zebrafish in Newcastle.

Walking 5,000 miles to help heart patients of the future

About 25 years ago I heard someone in a pub talking about walking around the UK coast. Even when my body had deteriorated, the idea stayed with me. Two years ago, some of my transplant friends had health problems and it reminded me to do things that I’ve always wanted to. Despite some setbacks with illness, I’ve walked around the entire coast – 5,000 miles in all.

Now the challenge is over, I’ll have to dream up something else to do with my amazing body

I wanted to do this to raise money for the BHF because I know that the procedures and treatments they research will help people in the future. Maybe it’s through the BHF that I’m still here.

Now the challenge is over, I’ll have to dream up something else to do with my amazing body. I am profoundly appreciative of my donor, and I’ve spoken to her family. But this heart feels like mine.

The best way of showing gratitude is to make sure this gift is used properly. And I’ll do that for as long as I can.

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