Merv McDonald

Merv McDonald

Story from The Woman's Day Magazine, as reported by Megan Norris
(and somewhat condensed by your Editor)

A garden full of miracles.

At Melbourne's Alfred Hospital, patients gathered on the lawns for the annual barbecue, swapping tales of medical marvels, lives saved and fates changed.

In the shade of a tree, a fragile grey-haired man - one of the hospital's 700 transplant recipients - watches the party from his wheelchair. Merv MeDonald allows himself a contented smile knowing that, of all their amazing stories, his had truly made history.

At 54, Merv is the only living Australian with three transplanted vital organs - his lungs, heart and, most recently, a kidney. Standing at Merv's side, his wife, Christine, is also at the party as an ex-patient. In September, she underwent surgery to remove one of her healthy kidneys in a selfless donation to give her husband life. The procedure, performed in the hospital's world-renowned transplant unit, was the latest instalment in a moving nine-year saga of love, generosity and friendship that has saved two lives. "Merv would never expect anyone to do anything he wouldn't do himself," Christine, 51, explains, gently squeezing her husband's hand.

With a nod, Merv recalls his first terrifying time in hospital in 1991 when he was confined to an oxygen machine. His lung condition, pulmonary fibrosis, was considered fatal without a lung transplant but at the time only a complete heart-lung transplant was possible. in critical health, and on a transplant waiting list, he agreed his own healthy heart should be donated to another on the transplant list when the time came.

"There was nothing wrong with my heart - just my lungs," he says. "Doctors said my best chance was to have a full heart-and-lungs transplant, so 1 wanted someone else to get my heart." Though Merv was far too sick to remember all the details of those bad times, another hospital barbeque guest, Russell Wills, has clearer recollections.

"I had a virus which had attacked my heart and I was on the waiting list for a heart transplant," says Russell, now 47, a cabinet-maker from Geelong. "During tests at the Alfred, I remember seeing Merv on a trolley, with an oxygen mask on. I knew my donor was a man waiting for a transplant himself and guessed it might be Merv.

"Merv and Russell met a month later at the hospital gym during their rehabilitation program. They introduced themselves, swapped stories and became firm friends. I was glad to see my heart had gone to such a lovely guy,"
Merv says.

United by a unique bond, they kept in touch. Merv invited Russell and wife Lexie to his 50th birthday party and, in 1996, to an even bigger event - his wedding to Christine. "We sat at the bridal table with them!" Russell laughs. Mery's own recollections of that special day are hazy.

Discharged hospital the night before the romantic family ceremony, he was gravely ill with kidney failure - a common after-effect of a lung transplant. "Christine knew when she met me that I wasn't well. I was suffering from a serious kidney complaint as a result of medication I was taking following my heart-lung transplant," says Merv.

Little did the newlyweds know that Christine's vows to love in sickness and in health would soon take on a deeper significance.

Merv's condition deteriorated rapidly. "Things were terrible," Christine says. "I'd given up my job to look after Merv and we were travelling three times a week from our home In Nathalia to the nearest hospital in Shepparton for dialysis. But he got worse as the access points to his veins were blocking up."

With collapsing veins and the complication of diabetes hindering dialysis treatments, the situation became critical. Christine was told that to save Merv a compatible kidney donor was needed urgently.

"When doctors told us, even though we hadn't discussed it, I asked if I could be Merv's donor," says Christine. "Tests showed I was the same blood type, both my kidneys were perfectly healthy and I was in good general health," she says matter-of-factly. "No-one else in the family was suitable and Mery's two sons from his previous marriage were too young, so I decided I wanted to go ahead."

Doctors agreed and, though Christine confesses she was "nervy and anxious" at the prospect, she'd made up her mind. "It was a very emotional time for us both," says Christine. "Merv told me I didn't have to do it, but I wanted to."

Merv still battles tears when he recalls the day of the operation and the enormity of his wife's gesture. "I feel emotional even now just thinking about it," he says, recalling Christine visiting him next day in a wheelchair.

"I was in intensive care for 19 days and Christine was in a different ward, but it didn't stop her coming to see me." Naturally, Russell and Lexie were among the couple's first outside visitors. "We weren't surprised when we heard Christine was Merv's kidney donor," Lexie says. "She's such a wonderful person and devoted to Merv. She'd do anything for him."

Now, two months after the operation, Merv is in a special-care unit at the hospital, where Christine can be by his side. Doctors say his health is improving daily and he no longer requires dialysis, although he takes nearly 40 pills a day to boost his immune system and requires tests three times a week.

With Merv at last healthy enough for a social outing, the McDonalds and the Wills are thrilled to be reunited at the barbecue lunch. Russell is full of gratitude for the man who gave him his heart. "I reckon he's incredible," he says. Christine says she's already started planning for happier days ahead. "After years of hospitals, we're finally looking forward - for the first time in our married lives," she says. "Until now it's been one round of hospitals, but we're hoping that will change. We're even planning for a real second honeymoon. Since Merv was so ill when we married, he remembers hardly anything of the time."

Merv nods, saying a belated honeymoon in the Victorian high country is his number-one priority. "Things are finally changing for the better," he says, cuddling his wife. "Christine's just won over $1000 on Tattslotto, and she's never won a thing before. So, we're finally feeling lucky."

For Information about becoming an organ donor, call 1800 777 203.

Article from Woman's Day Magazine, dated Dec 11, 2000, by kind permission of the protagonists, Merv, Christine, and Russell, and with the blessings of the Magazine itself.