An organ donor saved Martha’s life when she was just a baby – but 16 years later her heart is failing again and she needs a second transplant to stay alive
Image: Newcastle Chronicle)
As a baby, Martha Andersen received the greatest gift of all – a new heart. It saved her life and allowed her to enjoy a happy childhood with her twin Matilda.
Now the 16-year-old needs another miracle. Once again, her heart is failing.
Martha is one of 200 children waiting for a lifesaving organ this Christmas. But this time a suitable donor will be harder to find as her body is more likely to reject a second transplant.
Mum Gill, from Consett in County Durham, says: “You wonder, can we really be that lucky again? Martha’s first donor didn’t just save her life. They saved our whole family.
“It’s the ultimate gift. Every night I go to bed wondering if we will get that call. We have to stay positive.”
The twins both developed a viral infection weeks before their first birthday. While Matilda made a full recovery, Martha developed dilated cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart that could no longer pump blood around her body properly.
One of Gill’s friends was a children’s heart specialist who sent Martha to hospital after she began wheezing, vomiting, sweating, and fatigue in October 2016.
Gill says: “Martha needed immediate treatment to stop her heart failing or she would have died.”
She only spent five days in hospital, but after Christmas Martha began to deteriorate. “She was pale, wouldn’t eat, and was losing weight,” Gill says. “One morning I put the girls down for a nap. A little while later, I could hear Matilda moving, so I went to wake Martha.
“She wasn’t herself and her breathing was laboured.
“I threw her meds in a bag and drove like a bat out of hell to hospital. Martha stopped crying on the way and I thought she had died in the car. One of the doctors told me that if we’d been an hour later, she would have died.”
Martha continued to deteriorate in intensive care, so doctors fitted a Berlin Heart to pump blood around her body and buy her more time to find a donor.
She was only the third child to have a mechanical heart fitted at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle and one of them had not survived. “I didn’t think I would ever see Martha again,” says Gill.
Martha waited 41 days for her first transplant, after which she gained so much colour she looked “as if she was wearing lipstick”.
Big brother Harry, then five, lit a candle in memory of her donor. Martha spent 10 months in hospital as she suffered a paralysed diaphragm that stopped her breathing independently.
She needed a tracheostomy – a hole in her windpipe – to help her breathe and remained on a battery-operated mobile life support machine for 18 months. Up to 14 nurses, physiotherapists, dieticians and other health experts visited her home every week.
Gill recalls: “Spending so much time apart was hard for Martha and Matilda, but they still shared a close bond. They sat together at meal times. Matilda passed Martha bits of food and showed her what to do.
“Things weren’t easy. We nearly went bankrupt. I wasn’t working and my husband Carl was self-employed. We didn’t let anything stop us.
My daughter had fought that hard to stay alive, I was determined to make sure she lived. I took her to the park to use the swings. I would push the ventilator back and forth in time with her.”
Martha was able to enjoy a happy, healthy childhood thanks to her transplant. She went on outdoor pursuits trips with school, took up hockey, and even went skiing at a Swiss camp set up by a fellow transplant survivor.
But at the start of lockdown last year, Martha was diagnosed with end stage heart failure after doctors found fluid on her lungs.
Martha is now one of 6,100 people on the transplant waiting list and that will rise sharply when patients who were suspended during the pandemic are reinstated. She has not been able to return to school and is now
studying for her GCSEs at home.
Gill says: “A transplant doesn’t last for ever, but it’s still a shock when it starts to fail. Lockdown has been very isolating for Martha. She’s cross that her life has stopped.”
Finding a matching donor for Martha will be even harder this time as she has high level antibodies which means her body can only accept a new organ from 2% of the population.
In October last year doctors did find a good match, but after waiting hours at the hospital, the family were told the donor heart was not good enough.
Gill says: “It was utterly devastating. Martha’s consultant still can’t talk about it, she gets too upset. We don’t know if that was her only chance, but Martha is determined to get through this.
Her first transplant gave her years of good health. She sees no reason why this should be any different. Organ donation is the most amazing thing – the chance to save a life as yours ends. It’s the ultimate act of love for a total stranger.”
Last year, Max & Keira’s law, a new opt-out system for organ donation that will save hundreds of lives was introduced after a Mirror campaign.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.