The heart of a lion

Posted on: 5th September, 2016

Category: Sport & Fitness

Contributor: John Bohane

Clonakilty woman Karen McDermott recently returned home to West Cork following her heroic performance with the Ireland Heart and Lung Transplant team who successfully competed at the European Transplant championships in Finland. The Ireland team returned home with 28 medals, which included 16 gold, five silver and seven bronze. Clonakilty heroine Karen captured two medals. She won a silver medal in the ladies singles badminton championship, while she teamed up with Stephen Smith to win a bronze medal in the mixed badminton championship. Karen tells John Bohane about her heroic story, from despair to triumph.

Karen McDermott from Clonakilty was diagnosed on Friday, January 13, 2012 with end stage heart failure. This diagnosis came as a complete shock to the active sports enthusiast. Karen, who works as a credit controller in the Credit Union in Clonakilty, recalls the moment she received her life-changing diagnosis. “I had symptoms of rapid heartbeat but I stupidly asked ‘Dr Google’, who told me I was getting panic attacks. It wasn’t until I began to feel very unwell that I went to my doctor. As a very active sportsperson, I was playing badminton matches the very week I was diagnosed. I took many gym classes and was also part of a local walking club. My doctors told me that my body had become accustomed to living with a weak heart and when I began to exercise more, it took it’s toll and my heart couldn’t cope. My doctor sent me for a routine X-ray, which showed that I had an enlarged heart. My heart was way too big for a 37-year-old woman.”

Karen’s previously happy and carefree life changed quickly. She was admitted to the Mater Hospital in Dublin for urgent medical treatment. “I went from being a mother of two children (12 and 9 at the time) and working as a full-time credit controller in Clonakilty Credit Union to being confined to bed in a Cork hospital waiting for a bed in The Mater.” The Mater Hospital in Dublin is the national centre for cardiothoracic surgery and heart and lung transplantation.

Karen’s father sadly passed away following a heart condition at the age of 60, however doctors do not believe that Karen’s condition is hereditary. Karen is eternally grateful for all the medical assistance she has received over the course of the last four years. “When I was in Cork University Hospital, I was under the care of some of the most wonderful people. One in particular was my cardiologist Dr Eugene McFadden. Although he had a hard task telling me I was dying and hadn’t much time to live, he made sure I was going to be given every opportunity to fight for my life. I was fitted with a defibrillator ione side of my chest and on the other side I had a pacemaker so that when my heartbeat went erratic it would kick in and regulate it. I was like the bionic woman and it saved my life many many times in the following few months.”

Following her initial diagnosis, thoughts soon turned to transplants and waiting lists. “When the doctor first mentioned getting a heart transplant, I honestly hadn’t a clue. They couldn’t operate on my heart because it was too weak and I wouldn’t survive. I had only two other options, which were go home and take tablets and pray for a miracle or get a transplant. My initial thought was “who survives a heart transplant?” It was so foreign to me. I couldn’t accept that I was unwell. I even looked up stem cell surgery in Thailand. However, when I was transferred to The Mater Hospital, the situation all became very real. I underwent countless tests to determine if I had any other problem, which would prevent me from having a transplant. Thank God, due to my fitness, I was well – except for a failed heart! I researched heart transplant and became determined to live. Not so much for me, but for my children, my family and especially my mother. I have a very close bond with her and it was so hard for me to see her so worried, as we had lost my brother some years before.”

Karen experienced a contrasting range of emotions over the coming weeks. She got the call for a heart, which unfortunately proved unsuitable. “It was that night that I realised how much my transplant and me becoming well again meant to everyone,” says Karen. “I was overwhelmed by the kindness and support from everyone. You can’t live in a better town than Clonakilty. The people really rally together in the good times and bad.”

A week later during a special family day out to Fota Wildlife Park, Karen’s daughter was pushing her around the park in a wheelchair, when she got the call that another heart was available. An ambulance took her straight to Dublin after she said a quick goodbye to her family at the side of the road. “Some family members remained by my side and others waited until when the operation was over to get the news that I had a new heart and so far so good.”

The transplant operation proved a success. Karen always maintained a positive attitude following her initial diagnosis. She believes that it was this positive attitude that played a key role in her recovery. “During the operation they had to resuscitate me, which shows how weak my heart was. My donor heart came at the perfect time and was a perfect match. My first memory is of feeling warm and actually feeling the blood moving around my body. I had a proper heartbeat for probably the first time in many years.”

Karen remained in hospital for two difficult weeks. I wanted to get out of bed and back home quickly. They are miracle workers up there. My life was in their hands and they are fantastic people who work so hard.  I had a very positive attitude once I had accepted what was happening. The whole experience was beyond terrifying and my experience for the few months I was waiting for a heart were cruel. You know someone has to leave this world in order for you to stay. I wish this wasn’t the case but it’s one of life’s miracles and what a legacy my donor left behind. I left the hospital on September 7 and came home to the most wonderful surprise of all. The people of my town were out in force with a bonfire lighting and a crowd of people waiting to congratulate me. I was blown away. I never felt so special in my life.”

The operation proved a massive success. Karen still has to undergo regular tests but she is feeling great, as she acknowledges. “Since my transplant, I have been blessed. I won’t say it’s easy because that would be a lie but it’s incredible to be here. To be able to do normal things again. To see my children grow up in front of my eyes. I see the beauty in life now. I cherish it so much. I’ve been blessed to find someone new to share it with too. Without my donor, I would never have met Sean and got to experience love again. I’m back working nine hours a week in Clonakilty Credit Union. They have been so supportive of me and are more like family than colleagues.”

With a renewed zest and hunger for life and her love for sports firmly re-awakened, Karen, with the encouragement of her family and her heart donor’s mother decided to embark on her campaign to participate in the European Heart and Lung Transplant Games. “When I woke from my transplant, one of the first things I said was “I’m going to do the Transplant Games”. If my heart remained well then I was going to prove to everyone that organ donation works. During the months spent waiting for my heart, I watched Team Ireland going to games in the Netherlands and it really hit home how all these people, achieving so much, wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for donors. It gave me such encouragement.”

At the end of last year, Karen was contacted by her donor’s mother. “It came so unexpectedly that it took a while to comprehend. She is an inspiration. After getting to know her and my donor, I was determined to show his family what his donation has done for my family and I. My hero needed to be honoured and what better way than to take part in the championships.”

Karen applied to become a member of Team Ireland. Generous donations, both locally and worldwide, ensured that she had the funds required to participate. She loved being back playing sport competitively once again. “To go back on the court that I loved so much and to be playing competitively once again was great. All the players who competed in the championships have been in a dark scary place and when we look at each other all you can see are smiles and our little common community oozing positivity with a very firm appreciation of simple life.  I made so many new friends at the championships. It was a great experience.”

Karen trained hard in advance of the Heart and Transplant Games. She is especially indebted to Clonakilty Leisure Centre who provided her with free use of their facilities ahead of the championships. She has great memories of competing in Finland. “I trained hard in advance of the championships. By the time the games came around I was ready both mentally and physically to do the best I could. I fought hard to get a silver medal in the singles competition. I then partnered up with Stephen Smith from Cavan in the mixed doubles. We played our hearts out (pun intended) to achieve a bronze medal! It was a great moment holding both the medals. Seeing my daughter Nicola and partner Sean with huge smiles and hearing the Ireland fans singing and chanting was amazing. That adrenaline has made me want more. I can’t wait for the next championships which will be held in Italy in 2018.”

Karen has experienced an emotional rollercoaster of a ride over the past four and a half years. She has thankfully come out on the other side and is now the proud holder of European silver and a bronze medals. She hopes more people take the opportunity to keep donating their organs. “Heart failure is a scary thing so I would urge people not to feel alone. Stay positive. Believe it will happen for you. Organ donation is one of life’s miracles. If you want to be an organ donor, go tell your next of kin now, so it’s easier for them if the time should come. I hope I have shown that, without my donor, I wouldn’t be here enjoying the best life I could ask for. I wouldn’t change any of it. I have learnt so much from all life has thrown at me and it’s made me who I am today. Believe in organ donation, believe you can give someone life. I’ve been through a lot so to be here now with good health, a happy family, love, friends, my Credit Union family, Clonakilty and Inchydoney beach I am very fortunate. I take life one day at a time and whatever life brings I’m ready to take it on.”

Karen is indebted to all the various people and organisations that have supported her throughout her amazing story. She in return, has displayed great courage and resilience, which was rewarded with a historic medal success at the recent Heart and Transplant European Games.

Karen would like to take this opportunity to express her thanks to everyone who has helped her along the way. “I would like to thank all who have stood by me in the good and bad times, everyone in the Heart and Lung unit in The Mater Hospital, to Team Ireland, to my best friends who helped me fundraise, to everyone who donated in any way, to my donor family and their friends, to my friends in London, to the generosity of people in Clonakilty town who helped get me fit enough to compete. I would like to thank my family, and in particular, my sister Roisin, who ran the Cork Marathon to raise funds, to my mother, to my children whom I’m very proud of, Sean who took on a transplant recipient like a pro and who shows me what love every day. Lastly I would like to thank my hero Jonathan. May you have a special seat in heaven because you are my Saint.”

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