Rugby ace Rhys Thomas gives his support to Heart in a Box

 

Former Wales rugby union star Rhys Thomas has come out in support of QEHB Charity’ Heart in a Box campaign.

Rhys was playing for Welsh club Newport Gwent Dragons in a match against Northampton Saints in November 2007, shortly after representing his country at the World Cup, when he took a knock which caused a clot to develop in his heart.

This caused Rhys to have a minor heart attack and he was told that he needed to take a six month break from rugby. Rhys went on to make an excellent recovery from this heart attack, playing top level rugby, earning a move to Scarlets and making further appearances for his country.

However, the rugby star was mid-way through a high-intensity workout on an exercise bike at the Scarlets’ training ground in 2012 when he suffered a huge heart attack. One of the arteries in Rhys’ heart had dissected and if it weren’t for the swift treatment of the Scarlets medics then it is unlikely that he would have survived.

Speaking of his heart attack, Rhys said: “It came completely out of the blue. I was so lucky to have been surrounded by medics. If this happened to me at home I wouldn’t be here today.”

Rhys received an emergency quadruple bypass which saved his life and a long period of recovery began. Rhys recovered sufficiently from this heart attack to be added to the heart transplantation list where he has remained since.

Despite being on the urgent list, Rhys has yet to receive a heart transplant and instead has been kept alive thanks to an LVAD machine – a pump that keeps the heart alive. The operation to install this machine led to Rhys being in a coma for two weeks but it was the only option available to Rhys at the time.

The LVAD keeps Rhys’ heart beating but this comes at a price. The machine relies on battery packs, which Rhys has to carry around, and Rhys spends his nights hooked up to the mains.

However, Rhys has been able to get on with things since having the machine fitted, saying: “I live a fairly normal life with my family. Aside from things like swimming I can do most of the things that I love to do.

“I’m lucky just to be alive so I’m incredibly grateful for every day. The technology that’s kept me alive is remarkable and I literally owe my life to it.”

QEHB Charity is fundraising to bring a revolutionary piece of equipment to the hospital which will change the way that heart transplants are carried out forever. Heart in a Box allows a heart taken from a donor to carry on pumping outside of the body.

Doctors have found that an organ will survive much longer, and the chances of it being accepted by the recipient go up, if it carries on carrying out its function outside of the body. Ordinarily, hearts due for transplantation are kept on ice whilst outside of the body. The heart then has around four hours to be transplanted before the chance of it being accepted by the host is drastically reduced.

This short time frame has a huge impact on the viability of heart transplants. Currently, the recipient of the heart would need to be ready for surgery as soon as the heart becomes available and then the operation needs to be carried out as soon as possible.

Naturally, this limits the number of heart transplants that can be carried out due to geographical and transportation challenges.

For Rhys, the challenge of receiving a heart transplant in the conventional way would be even greater. Due to the numerous operations that Rhys has had, there is a large amount of scar tissue in his chest.

Rhys said: “If a heart became available and I was the one due to receive it, it would take surgeons two to three hours just to cut through the scar tissue in my chest to gain access to my heart.

“Obviously this would cause a delay to the operation and the longer a heart is out of the body; the less likely it is that my body would accept it.”

Heart in a Box will keep a heart alive outside of the body, increasing the time that doctors would have to transport the heart to the correct location and prepare the patient for surgery. In Rhys’ case this could be the difference between a successful and unsuccessful operation.

Speaking of the difference Heart in a Box would make, Rhys said: “This piece of equipment will make a huge difference for people like me who are waiting on a heart suitable for transplantation.

“There aren’t sufficient organs for transplant anyway and once you’ve taken geography and time into account the situation is even harder. Anything that will extend that period of time where a heart can be transplanted is going to be of huge benefit to people on the waiting list.”

Not only does Heart in a Box keep the heart beating outside of the body, it also allows doctors to start injecting immunosuppressant drugs into the heart. These drugs stop the recipient’s immune system rejecting the new organ once it has been transplanted.

Doctors at QEHB estimate that Heart in a Box will allow them to carry out 50% more heart transplants than they are currently able to do. At the moment, only eight out of ten people receive the heart transplant that they need and doctors at QEHB hope that this figure can chance as a result of Heart in a Box.

Rhys said: “It is estimated that three people die each day in need of an organ. Heart in a box will completely change the way that heart transplants are carried out, benefitting people in the West Midlands and far beyond.”

If you would like to support QEHB Charity's Heart in a Box campaign, please visit qehbheart.org

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