Will Evans

Donating heart a matter of life and breath

Will and Glen

WILL EVANS is not yet 10, but he has already given his heart away. Will's story is a special one: a child he has never met helped save his life, and he in turn has saved another.

In a "domino" operation a few months ago, Will's heart was removed and taken in an esky from The Alfred hospital in Melbourne to another hospital where it was implanted into another child.

Will remained in the operating theatre. His lungs had caused him too much grief and they too were removed. The heart and lungs of another child were given to Will. The six-hour operation saved his life.

Associate Professor Nick Freezer, a pediatric respiratory physician at Monash Medical Centre, has taken care of Will since a serious virus affected his lungs when he was two. He puts it simply: "He would have died without a lung transplant."

There was nothing wrong with Will's heart, but the best way to do a lung transplant on a small child is to do the heart at the same time. In children, everything is smaller, so there are fewer complications if the organs are done together.

Will's mother, Janine, is so grateful. She feels the surgery has given Will his life back. "It's nice to know that he's helped someone else as well."

This year The Alfred performed lung transplants on three children. Tamara, 16, and Alysha Coleman, 13, were given lungs. Alysha was also given a heart.

For a long time there was uncertainty about whether children in Victoria would be able to have this life-saving operation. There were fears that they might even have to go overseas. Victoria's Royal Children's Hospital had been doing them since 1988, but was doing only one a year - not enough to build up expertise. It stopped doing them in 2000 because it was not getting the best results. Because of the complexity of the procedure, some of the children died.

Colin Robertson, director of respiratory medicine at the Royal Children's, said The Alfred then already had a lot of expertise in adult lung transplants, and it made sense to take advantage of that. "That was an era where changes and improvements in transplantation were occurring very rapidly, and you can't keep up with those changes when you do one a year," he said. "So we made the decision here that the children would be much better done at The Alfred."

Professor Esmore says it is a big responsibility for an adult hospital to look after children. "You know you can do the operation; you just have to downsize," he said.

"To operate on children adds another layer of emotional and professional pressure."

Tamara and Alysha needed lung transplants because they were born with cystic fibrosis. Tamara, 16, was the first to have a lung transplant since the centre was set up. Her life has changed dramatically since the operation.

Alysha had a heart and lung transplant. Her life has also vastly improved. Her mother, Di Coleman, described the night of the surgery as the scariest in her life. She said: "You couldn't ask for anything better than to have your child's life given back to you."

Carol Nader
September 18, 2006
The Sydney Morning Herald