22-Year-Old Feels ‘Bulletproof’ After Life-Saving Heart Transplant
Death and what happens to our bodies after we die isn’t always something we humans feel comfortable discussing, despite this being the one thing that unites us all.
However, for some, a reckoning with their own mortality will strike at a painfully young age, stripping away the youthful illusion of indestructibility.
Eliza Bell, from Cornwall, was just 20 years old when she was given an impossible, horrifying diagnosis, the sort no young person would ever expect to hear: she had just one year to live, unless she was lucky enough to get the gift of a new heart.
Eliza was 16 when she learned she needed a transplant, having dealt with her heart condition since the age of 12, but this was something she had learned to live with day-to-day, for a while.
However, by 18, Eliza’s condition had begun to really affect her, hindering everyday activities such as walking up the stairs or running for a bus. Then, at the age of 20, she was given the worst possible news during an assessment.
Eliza told UNILAD that the news had come as ‘such a shock’ to her, after going into the assessment feeling fairly ‘optimistic’:
It almost felt like my life was over, whatever was going to happen. That was the initial feeling, that my life was over and I just felt like I was in a dark tunnel.
I remember talking to my brother and being in a really low place and just being like. ‘I’m in a tunnel and I can’t see a light’.
Eliza recalled feeling a complete loss of control at this point in her life, being completely unaware of where her fate would lie.
The prospect of dying at such a young age felt completely ‘unnatural’ to Eliza, who understandably found herself wondering why she’d been dealt such a devastating hand:
The thing that just kept going through my head was like, why me? Why can’t I be like all the other 20 year olds? Why can I go and drink? Why can’t I go out and have a good time?
I couldn’t even go out and dance without my heart, like going off with heart palpitations. And I had a pacemaker, so I was always quite worried that I was going to get electrocuted on the dancefloor!
At this point, Eliza was constantly getting bad news. Despite barely being in her twenties, she had the heart of a 70-year-old, a heart that was running at about 20% capacity.
All the while, Eliza was trying desperately to keep up with everybody else, going out shopping and walking and struggling with all the loneliness of having an invisible illness.
There wasn’t much in the way of support groups in her area, and Eliza found being on the transplant list to be a lonely experience. Many of her friends had already gone on to university, or to London and she was left behind ‘stuck at home’.
She told UNILAD how she had ‘blocked a lot people out’, feeling as though they didn’t understand what she was going through:
I’ve got nothing interesting to say, I’m not an interesting person. I’m just stuck here with no value and that’s something that a lot of transplant patients go through, losing their purpose because their whole life stops.
Fortunately for Eliza, after three false alarms, she finally received some good news. She had a new heart, and a shot at a future.
Remembering how she had walked into the operating theatre, knowing there was a one in ten chance she might not walk out again, Eliza recalled a ‘really strange, bit euphoric moment’. The operation was a success, and Eliza was left feeling ‘bulletproof’, being completely unfazed by any subsequent situation life may throw at her.
However, for all her joy and relief, Eliza is well aware of the donor family on the other side of the story, mourning their loved one.
Someone has died for you to live. So I think it’s a really special thing that a donor and a donor family can do. It’s almost like the donor’s legacy, I guess.
Moving forward with her own life, Eliza tries to do things with her donor in mind, and wants to make them ‘proud’ of the person she is becoming. She even named her van after him, which she plans to drive during her upcoming travels around Spain and Portugal.
At only 22, Eliza – who is now well enough to traverse mountain peaks – has already done enough to make anyone proud, having arisen as a powerful voice for those awaiting and recovering from transplants.
Having trained as a coach for those going through the exact same process, Eliza has previously spoken at organ donation conferences, and has even used her time shielding during lockdown to start the brilliant podcast Transplant Chats With Eliza, helping to create the sort of community she herself never had during her lonely time on the transplant register.
For organ donation week, Eliza used her podcasting skills to collaborate with NHS BT for the Organ Donation Week Podcast, now available to listen to via Spotify, Apple or Google.
Eliza is a million miles away from the girl who could once only see a dark tunnel ahead, and is now looking very much to a bright and happy future. Podcasting and coaching aside, Eliza looks forward to plenty of travelling, with a focus on enjoying a good balance in life and ‘just being around good people’.
Sadly, not everybody gets to move forward with their hopes and dreams, and it’s estimated that one person on the transplant register dies while waiting for their organ every single day, deaths which could be avoided.
Phil Walton, a specialist nurse in the field of organ donation, told UNILAD that there is currently a waiting list of some 7,000 transplant patients, 200 of which are children.
Last May, the UK introduced an opt-out system, whereby adults over the age of 18 are automatically placed on the organ donation register and have to actively opt-out if they don’t want to be on it.
This move helped to better reflect the actual views of the UK, according to Walton, as although 90% supported organ donation, just 50% had previously signed up to the register, with many never actually getting round to it.
However, more than one year on from this policy change, and many people aren’t aware that – even if a person dies an organ donor – their family can still override any decision to donate their organs, regardless of the deceased’s wishes.
According to Walton, nine out of ten families are in support of organ donation, but this still means that one in ten are against it, meaning that many life-saving organs still aren’t being donated.
Walton told UNILAD:
In some cases, we do find that because their loved ones haven’t told them that they’d signed up to be an organ donor, it comes as very much a surprise.
With this issue in mind as we mark Organ Donation Week, those signed up to the organ donor register are encouraged ‘to share that decision and leave your family certain’.
This doesn’t have to be an awkward conversation, according to Walton, who told UNILAD:
You can just talk about it in the sense of, you know, what would you like to happen after your death? People talk might talk about at funerals and that type of music and those sorts of things, and this is just one of those conversations.
It doesn’t have to be a really formal discussion over tea and all be very serious. It might be part of a TV programme. It could just be off the cuff while you’re out having a walk. It shouldn’t be such a big thing, but it’s about being clear about the sort of things that you want after you’ve died.
This Organ Donation Week, it’s important to remember what an extraordinary gift you could give after your time on this Earth is up, giving hope to people like Eliza who might otherwise, in her words, ‘be in the grave right now’.
However, it’s not just enough to make a quiet, personal decision to donate, as commendable as this is. By making your loved ones aware of your wishes, over a cuppa or in front of the soaps, you could well be saving the life of someone you’ve never even met.
You can find out more about Eliza Bell by listening to her podcast, Transplant Chats With Eliza.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
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