After emigrating to WA from South Africa in 2013, Brett Driessen’s life took a life-threatening turn when an unknown virus invaded, and ultimately, destroyed his heart.
Brett and his family had just settled in to their new home in Secret Harbour when he started to feel tired and developed flu-like symptoms. Thinking it was something that would resolve itself, Brett ignored the symptoms for two weeks before seeing his GP.
“I spent three days doing tests, but they couldn’t find anything. On the third day I was greyish, with blue lips and the doctor said I needed to get to hospital.” Mr Driessen said.
“They thought it was my gallbladder and decided to do surgery the next morning.”
A final ultrasound prior to the scheduled surgery revealed a far more serious circumstance for the young husband and father of two. Instead they found Brett was experiencing chronic heart failure, suspected to be caused by an unknown virus.
“They don’t know what virus, where I got it, or how long for, but it absolutely ruined my heart; my whole heart was virtually useless.”
The keen swimmer, who describes the water as his “happy place”, grappled with the news.”The whole time I was denying it, my mind was blown. I’m not overweight, or a smoker or drinker and I couldn’t believe it was my file they were looking at.”
After three months of unsuccessful medicinal treatment Brett was placed on the transplant list, beginning what was to become an anxious seven month wait for a donor heart.
“You put everything else on hold because you don’t want to be in the middle of something busy or important when the call comes in” Mr Driessen said. “When you’re on the waitlist you can’t be more than an hour from the hospital.”
That call finally came on a Saturday morning and thanks to the WA Heart and Lung Transplant team at Fiona Stanley Hospital, Brett was fortunate enough to be back on the path to good health within 24 hours.
“When my phone call came seven months later I thought it was a joke. I asked the nurse to repeat that it wasn’t a drill. That was on a Saturday morning, 24 hours later I had a new heart.”
The first heart transplant was performed in WA in 1995, when Esperance man Rodney Western received the gift of a heart by a new team led by cardiothoracic surgeon and WA transplant service pioneer Mr Rob Larbalestier AO. Before the establishment of the service, Mr Western, then 35, had moved his family to Victoria for a year, but with the opening of the new service they were able to return home.
Since then, more than 198 lives have been saved by the team which is still led by Mr Larbalestier and continues to improve through a team of dedicated researchers who believe there is much to be done to improve the incidence of, and success rate, of heart and lung transplants.
“Too many potentially useable donor heart and lungs are discarded for potentially reversible causes” Mr Larbalestier said.
“More vital research is required in organ resuscitation to expand our donor pool and offer transplants to people desperately waiting on ever lengthening waitlists.”
Mr Driessen will join Mr Larbalestier and the research team for a free community forum on 25 July to share his story of survival and encourage others to donate as part of the federal government’s DonateLife Week advocacy. Brett is positive for the future, knowing he has been given a new lease on life as the result of the most generous sacrifice.
“From the donor’s side, their family has lost a loved one, and you have received this precious gift, a second chance. It’s something to be treasured. I would imagine the donors family would rather the gift be used to its fullest potential rather than to someone who would sit around being miserable and reflecting on the circumstances before their transplant.”
When asked why people should give to medical research Mr Driessen responded
“The more we know the better position it puts us in to help fix things when they break. Conversely, once they have been fixed, it helps us get better quicker… it enables us to do the things we love to do. It saves lives, it helps people.”