You would expect the world to lie at the feet of a 20-year-old young woman, but a dark cloud hung over Hendrika van Wyk’s life in 1984. She was born with a heart condition that left her gasping for breath after she walked just a few steps and not even able to dress herself without the help of her sisters. Hendrika says she felt life draining from her and had to face up to fact that she may not survive for very much longer.
Thanks to a heart transplant she received that year at Groote Schuur Hospital, however, Hendrika’s life was given back to her. Now 30 years on, the world’s longest surviving female transplant patient attended a function in Johannesburg on Thursday to celebrate organ transplantation and give thanks to the organ donor and healthcare team who saved her life. The function was organised by Netcare Milpark and Groote Schuur hospitals.
“The miracle of transplantation has enabled me to live a full life these past 30 years. I am so grateful to have had the great privilege of being given a transplant. It gave me the opportunity to meet my loving husband Hendrik, and to adopt my wonderful daughter Riká Marie in 1993, who is now 18 years old. I have treasured every minute of this second chance I have been given.”
Hendrika, whose condition had weakened her heart to such an extent that it only had 6% function at the time of the transplant, says that she often gets emotional when she thinks of the donor and his family. “I often pray for and give thanks to the donor’s family who, at a time of agonising heartbreak, acted with such compassion.”
Hendrika now lives in Krugersdorp and is under the care of Dr Graham Cassel, a cardiologist and member of the transplant programme at Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg. She was one of a number of heart transplant patients who along with medical specialists, nurses, transplant coordinators and hospital staff attended the transplant function. The event, which was initiated by Dr Cassel, is held annually to celebrate transplant survivors and provide them with the opportunity to support one another.
The moving occasion also celebrated the heart transplant of Wessel Janse van Rensburg in 1995, almost 20 years ago. Wessel, a 62-year-old father of four who lives in Heidelberg, had such a weakened heart that it was barely beating any longer. In 1995, he spent a month in Netcare Milpark Hospital awaiting a donor heart.
Then one day late in July, another patient who had received a combined heart-lung transplant at a Pretoria hospital passed away as his body could not withstand the shock of the operation. In a most unusual case of a double transplantation, the still viable heart was transplanted into Wessel in a highly successful operation performed at Netcare Milpark Hospital. There were early signs that his body might reject his new heart, but this was fortunately prevented with advanced medication. By November of 1995 Wessel was back at his job as a diesel mechanic, which is very physical work.
Wessel’s family say that they are very grateful that he was able to have the operation, and feel blessed not to have lost him. They feel sad, however, that the donor lost his life. The family said that Wessel’s experience had shown them the importance of organ donation and they are now encouraging South Africans to register as organ donors.
“Hendrika and Wessel’s brave journeys to their 30th and 20th anniversaries have been most remarkable and it is fitting that we honour them. They have both reached incredible milestones and show us the power of organ transplantation, which saves and transforms lives. They also demonstrate that our heart transplantation programme in South Africa is comparable to the best programmes in the world,” emphasises Dr Cassel.
“Transplantation depends entirely upon the goodwill of donors and their families who are willing to make their organs available to individuals who are desperately in need of them. Many South Africans take organ transplantation for granted and few consider the importance of becoming a donor. Many people are not even aware that transplants can be undertaken locally,” adds Dr Cassel.
Dr Cassel says a shortfall in donors in South Africa is resulting in a most tragic and avoidable loss of life. According to the Organ Donor Foundation some 4 300 adults and children are currently awaiting transplantation, while fewer than 600 transplants are performed annually.
“We encourage people to step forward and register as organ donors to give South Africans in desperate need the opportunity of a new life. We salute the selfless donors and their families who make transplantation possible,” adds Dr Cassel.
Mande Toubkin, Netcare general manager: emergency, trauma, transplant and CSI, says that the private transplant programme that was established at Netcare Milpark Hospital 24 years ago, forms part of the International Society for Heart and Lung Transplantation. No fewer than 150 heart transplants alone have been completed since 1994 by the team at Netcare Milpark Hospital.
Toubkin explains that at least 21 different organs and types of tissue including the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, corneas and bone marrow, can be successfully transplanted into patients to increase their lifespan for years or even decades. Up to 25 people can benefit from one donor’s organs and tissues. According to Toubkin, an individual may register as an organ donor with the Organ Donor Foundation and voluntarily leave their organs for the purposes of transplantation.
Issued by: Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare Milpark Hospital and Groote Schuur Hospital
Contact: Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Sarah Beswick or Jillian Penaluna
Telephone: (011) 469 3016
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