Matthew Windebank

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Tim Lamberton

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Samantha Pang

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Stephen Williams

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Matthew Windebank

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Ben Wiseman

Matthew Windebank

When people find out that Matthew Windebank had a Heart Transplant some 14 years ago, their first reaction is shock – he looks so “normal” and has such a “normal” life, even flying light planes for a hobby! Their second reaction is to want to know why, and most assume he was born with a congenital heart disorder and spent his life getting progressively unwell, knowing he’d need a transplant at some point. When they hear that their (still relatively young) friend had a heart attack out of nowhere at age 30, they really sit up and take notice!

Matthew and I met at Youth Group in Tasmania in the early 90’s and we joke that it was “indifference at first sight”! Over time, friendship grew into love and we were married at the beginning of 1996. Life was routine (kind of!) –we bought a little 2 bedroom unit, he worked for Local Govt and finished his diploma in Engineering, I finished my degree and started nursing, I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, we moved to Victoria for a year so Matthew could learn to fly (aiming to head for Northern Australia and fly with Mission Aviation Fellowship), then back to Tassie again when funds got low, planned to start a family, wondered if we’d ever move to coastal NSW –the usual stuff!

The fateful day in Oct 2000 started normally – Matthew went to work, and I got ready for my 10a.m. start at the OH&S consultancy where I worked as an RN. But soon, Matthew was home again, looking very unwell and feeling very scared.

Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. Every ambulance in town was in use, the initial assessment done by the ambo who was available showed no serious issues (normal BP, perfect rhythm on the 2-lead cardiac trace, no significant history) and the ambulance was cancelled, with advice to attend our GP with ?panic attack. After a few hours of grey, sweaty pain on the GP’s table, the diagnosis was an inflamed rib muscle, and Matthew was sent home for rest and anti-inflammatories. Two mornings later, I woke to find him having a seizure beside me in the bed.

It goes without saying that, this time, I insisted on an ambulance! Hours blurred into days, into weeks. Matthew had had a “massive heart attack” (in the words of a doctor, who kept repeating this news, stunned that Matthew was still alive) caused by a clot blocking one of the major arteries that feed the heart muscle. No definitive reason for the clot was ever discovered, but it’s a miracle he survived the initial heart attack at all, let alone the repercussions –a heart trying to function with 1/3 of it dead, not enough oxygen getting around the body (hence the seizures), medevac flights, pneumonia, allergic reactions, clots forming randomly (inc multiple PE’s, but thankfully never in his brain or what was left of his heart) …and the doctors “trying everything we know, and some things we don’t” in an effort to keep him alive. By December, the specialists thought Matthew might have a tumour hiding somewhere (some tumours are known to throw clots and he was going downhill so fast, losing weight and not stabilising), so they moved him from ICU to the Oncology ward –the best thing to happen to us in weeks! Oncology is so laid back –you want to order pizza because you’re sick of the hospital menu? Go for it –here’s the phone! Your wife wants to stay? No problem –here’s an ensuite room with space for a fold-up bed next to your hospital bed! Your family wants to spend Christmas Day with you? What a great idea –we’ll set up the staff conference room and the family can bring turkey with all the trimmings!

Eventually home, but very unwell, we were getting varying prognoses from different doctors. Then the Transplant Team from Victoria did their routine round of clinics in Tas, and Matthew was assessed.

And we got very sobering news: at the current rate of decline, without a transplant, we were looking at 6 months.

And so, to Melbourne for an intense, exhausting week of tests & scans & interviews & medications & Dr’s visits &…we were on the list! The advice? Go home, stay as healthy as possible, attend the pre-transplant clinics regularly, and keep a bag packed for “that call”.

We returned to The Alfred Hospital for our first pre-transplant clinic in April 2001 and the Dr took one look at Matthew and admitted him to the Cardiology Unit! We were in Melbourne around a week, and on the Friday we were told we could go home on the Monday. Then, later Friday evening, they came back, “we don’t think you’ll be going home Monday after all –we think we might have a heart for you”! A nervous night for family, a lovely Temazepam-induced sleep for Matthew, and off to Theatre at 7a.m. (in the Service Lifts, because Matthew’s 6’4” frame is too long for anything hospital-related: beds, air ambulances, elevators!)
The Dr’s first words to us in ICU? “It’s a cracker!” And, apart from post-op Pancreatitis (which is a known reaction to Cardiac Transplant), her words have proved absolutely right! The donated heart was such a close match, and Matthew’s system so accepting, that he’s never had any rejection, doesn’t need to take Prednisolone any more, is back to flying (as far as we know, the first Private Pilot in the world to get his licence back after a heart transplant!), works full-time, and thoroughly enjoys life!

Since Oct 2000, and then 28 April 2001, life is similar, yet different. Our faith is the same (maybe stronger), our relationship is the same (ditto the stronger part!), we still have friends and family from before that time and have added to them over the years. We moved to coastal NSW!! Life still has the inevitable ups and downs (we’re still just a family of 2), but we have a new appreciation for all that it offers (including an unexpected move to Canberra 5 years ago!) and we deliberately grab every opportunity to celebrate the good stuff!

Which leads me to the photo’s I’ve included with our story. No hospital pics, not even any pre-ordeal pics. I chose photo’s of the life we’ve lived since that time – the life that wouldn’t have been possible, if not for an amazingly generous family who chose to say “yes” when someone asked them to consider organ donation after their 28y.o. husband / son / brother passed away almost 14 years ago.