Like most fathers, Shane O'Connell is looking forward to seeing the joy on his children's faces this Christmas morning. But it will be an extra-special occasion for the Kerry man as he hasn't been home for over a year.
Last December the 33-year-old was admitted to hospital and has only just returned home in time to enjoy Christmas with his three children -- Shauna (13), Cadhla (5) and Michael (2) -- and his wife Tricia.
Having spent the past year worrying about the health of her husband, Tricia is overjoyed.
"Shane was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy when he was 11-years-old," she says. "He lived a relatively normal life until he was 21 but then began to feel very tired and weak so doctors recommended an internal defibrillator. As a long-distance lorry driver, he was reluctant to have the operation because insurance wouldn't cover him if he had heart surgery."
However, Shane's health deteriorated and in February 2006 he was fitted with the defibrillator -- but it wasn't long before things began to go wrong.
"Everything seemed fine but towards the end of 2007, he collapsed and was taken, unconscious, to hospital in Cork where doctors said the defibrillator saved his life," says Tricia.
Shane was fitted with additional device (an ICD) and advised to take six months off work. But this wasn't the end of his troubles.
"For a few years, things seemed better but one morning in September 2010, Shane received nine shocks to his heart within an hour," recalls Tricia. "He was rushed again to Cork where he spent a month in hospital.
"Afterwards he was very weak and had difficulty with simple things like going up the stairs. So he was referred to the Mater Hospital in Dublin to determine whether or not he would need a transplant. Again he was reluctant to have surgery."
Tests revealed that the function of his heart was so poor, the only way he would survive long-term would be with a transplant. So after battling against the idea for over a year, the father of three finally put his name on the waiting list.
"In early February 2011, we drove up to the Mater to see if he would be suitable for surgery," says Tricia.
"When they decided he was, his name was put on the list. He had given up work because he wasn't physically able to do anything -- so there was nothing he could do but wait for news of a donor."
But in December 2012, tests revealed that Shane's heart function had further deteriorated so he was admitted to hospital where a 24-hour drip would keep his heart pumping properly. Neither he nor Tricia realised he would be there for a year.
"When Shane was admitted last December we knew he wouldn't be home for Christmas so it was hard saying goodbye particularly as he would miss out on Santa," recalls Tricia.
"As time went on, I would have been completely lost if it wasn't for my parents looking after the kids every week so I could visit Shane, and financially we were supported by friends and family and the Kerry Branch of the Irish Kidney Association."
Tricia developed a routine at home while Shane did the best he could to keep busy within the confines of the hospital walls.
"It was very difficult time but we just took one day at a time," says Tricia. "It was also very tough for Shane but he made some great friends amongst the staff and patients. Meanwhile, he was called three times for surgery but for various reasons, wasn't suitable."
So Shane was more than ready for surgery when he was called for the fourth time.
"There was a long wait for the organ, so when we heard that it was all systems go, I was very emotional. Shane was surprisingly calm as he had waited so long; he knew he just had to get on with it."
"I waited nervously for about six hours and the transplant co-ordinator updated me regularly -- but once it was over, the relief was indescribable."
After a turbulent year, Shane has finally returned home.
"Having Shane home for Christmas is the best present ever," says Tricia. "We've missed him so much and the children are over the moon."
Although it may be another 12 months before he can work again, he is thrilled to be home.
"This has been the hardest three years of my life, especially the last 12 months as I've missed so much of my children's lives," says Shane. "But because of the selflessness and generosity of my donor and their family I am feeling healthier and stronger every day.
"I am now looking forward to getting home and spending a happy and fun-filled Christmas with my children, my wife and all our family and friends."
FOR ORGAN DONOR CARDS; FREETEXT DONOR TO 50050 OR LOCALL 1890 543639.
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