Heart surgery

Southend mother-of-two reunited with family after heart surgery

Nicola Sharpe with part of the intensive care team at the Royal Papworth Hospital

Submitted by Sam Edwards

A teacher from Southend, Essex was emotionally reunited with her sons and sister and received a life-saving heart transplant.

Nicola Sharpe, 48, spent six months in hospital after being admitted to the specialist heart and lung center at the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge.

Having missed many special occasions including birthdays, Christmas and New Year parties, Nicola was thrilled to finally be home and spend time with her two boys, aged nine and 12.

Speaking about his extended stay, Nicola said: “There were many times when I thought this day would never come. I cannot thank the team at Royal Papworth enough for their expert and exceptional day-to-day care, and my anonymous donor without whom this moment would not be possible.

Nicola’s husband, Peter, tragically died of a sudden and unexplained heart condition seven years ago. She says her determination to recover was fueled by her desire to return home to her sons because she didn’t want them to lose both parents.

Nicola first developed symptoms in 2020 when she found herself gasping for air. The Southend Hospital team diagnosed Nicola with dilated cardiomyopathy and referred her to Royal Papworth.

She said: ‘By my own admission, I ignored those early symptoms. I am normally fit and active and run regularly, but when it happened again I knew something was wrong.

Nicola’s condition rapidly deteriorated and on New Years Day 2021 she was back in Cambridge to be fitted with a pacemaker to support her failing heart. However, a few months later, his condition worsened even further.

In August 2021, Nicola was first admitted to a ward at the Royal Papworth Hospital, but suffered cardiac arrest shortly after arriving which saw her rush to intensive care, where she was past the majority of its 190 days. At another time, she lost 80% of her blood in an operation and was told she had survived against all odds.

His life-saving heart transplant ultimately took place in a complex 12-hour operation under the care of Consultant Transplant Surgeon, Mr. Steven Tsui and his multidisciplinary team.

Mr Tsui said: “The course of Nicola’s illness has had more ups and downs than most roller coaster rides. Against all odds, she succeeded and what a wonderful time to see her reunited with her sons.

“Working at the Royal Papworth Hospital is truly teamwork. Many hours of compassionate care from so many teams have gone into treating Nicola since his diagnosis and especially over the past six months.

“It’s always hugely rewarding to see patients like Nicola go from being so sick, where a transplant is the only therapy they have left, to being well enough to go home.

“All of this is possible because of the people who decide to donate their organs in the event of their death, a decision they share with their family so that their wishes are respected. Without this decision and this conversation, we would not be able to to save lives like Nicola’s.”

Nicola found her two boys at home after six months of hospitalization

Several weeks after her operation, Nicola’s recovery progressed so well that she was discharged to continue her rehabilitation at home, with regular and continuous check-ups at the Royal Papworth, now on an outpatient basis.

Given her experience, Nicola would like to see more people informing their families about donation decisions.

She said: “My only message to anyone reading this is to please talk to your loved ones about organ donation and let them know if you would like to be a donor in the event of your death. If my donor hadn’t had this conversation with his family, I might still be waiting for a transplant.

“I’ve always been very honest with the kids about what happened to Peter and what I’m going through now. They asked me some pretty tough questions, like ‘are you going to die like daddy’ and ‘how are we going to live without you?’ That first hug with my boys is one of the most special moments of my life. it was the moment that kept me going – it felt like it was forever.

For more information on organ donation in the UK, visit: https://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/

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