'I had two heart transplants by the age of 30'
After suffering a heart attack at age 18, Aoife Farrell went on to have two heart transplants and now works out five times a week, writes Denise Smith
If there is one myth Aoife Farrell would like to dispel, it’s that young people don’t have heart attacks — or, more specifically, that teenagers don’t have heart attacks.
The fitness aficionado was just 18 years old when she suffered a mini stroke and heart attack, culminating in a heart transplant when she was 19.
Due to unforeseen health complications nine years on, the Bray native’s heart began to fail again. And now at the age of 30, she is one of just two people in Ireland to have had two successful heart transplants.
Buoyed by yet another chance at life, Aoife — who will be taking part in the European Transplant & Dialysis Sports Championships as a member of Transplant Team Ireland in Dublin next year — shares her incredible story.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
“I never knew there was anything wrong with my heart when I was growing up. I had really bad anxiety and I found it hard to get on public transport or to sit in the classroom. Doctors and psychologists just thought it was the usual teenage angst, so I was put on medication and it made me feel better for a while. And then things got worse.”
The first inklings of Aoife’s ill health came when she was in fifth year.
“I was eating breakfast before school one morning and I dropped my cereal bowl on the floor and then went to get the sweeping brush and I collapsed. My mam said, ‘This isn’t right’ and brought me to the hospital and that is when I was told I had had a mini heart attack and a mini stroke.”
Diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a condition where a portion of the heart becomes thickened, Aoife explains: “All the pieces of the puzzle came together when they told me what I had been experiencing wasn’t anxiety, I was actually having heart palpitations. Because I was so young, my heart was never checked.”
Placed on medication, Aoife returned to school to sit her summer exams, but it wasn’t long before her health deteriorated further.
“A month into sixth year, I had a stroke and I lost all my power in my right side. I started new medication for anxiety because at that stage, it was embedded in my brain that I was suffering with anxiety, and at first, I thought it had something to do with that.
“My dad is a teacher and he had a half day that day and the only reason he came home after school was because he couldn’t find a parking space to go to the shop. I was so lucky, otherwise I would have been left in the house on my own when I was unconscious.
“An ambulance was called and when I was at the hospital, they fitted a defibrillator because they were so concerned my heart would stop.
“I was put on the transplant list straight away — I had to leave school and I waited at home for three months until a heart became available. And at that age, it was very traumatic. I was so young and nobody else my age really understood what I was going through.”
Despite a complicated 12-hour surgery, Aoife was discharged from hospital two weeks later.
“I found it hard getting my energy back. After a transplant, you are immuno-suppressed so you have to be very careful with infection and being around a lot of people.
“The first year especially is really hard because there are a lot of rules with regards to what you can eat, and with transplants, you can’t even have tap water. But to have these restrictions and to live, obviously I don’t mind.”
Moved to contact the donor’s family, Aoife explains the huge importance of organ donation.
“You can write to the donor three months after you have your transplant and give it into the hospital and then the family can send correspondence back through the hospital.
“I did write to them and you have to understand, it is a loss for them too, so I understand why I never heard anything back. I send a mass card around the time of year too. I want them to know that it gave me a second chance.”
Doing everything in her power to keep her heart health intact, Aoife began a new health and fitness regime. Two years post op, she took up running and discovered HIT (high-intensity training) whilst finding the time to complete a Degree in Early Childhood Education.
“I was training five days a week and my cardiologist said I was the poster child for heart transplants.”
Nine years on from her first heart transplant, Aoife was dealt a devastating blow when she was told that her new heart was failing.
“I got a rare form of rejection called vasculitis, which is basically a narrowing of the arteries. I just said to myself, ‘Why me. I have been through this once before, why do I have to do it again?’
“I was told they don’t do second transplants in Ireland, so I thought ‘This is it, I am going to die.’”
Aoife spent the three months prior to her second transplant living at the Mater Hospital, Dublin, while doctors treated and monitored her condition. She went on the heart transplant waiting list 16 days before being called for her transplant.
“I was put on a balloon pump to keep my heart pumping, which meant I was forced to lie on my back for a month and when they set me up on that, I thought my heart didn’t have long left.
“You can only be on that for a month and the day I came off, they were sending me home to see how long my heart had left.
“That day in ICU, things came racing into my mind — things I didn’t get to do, and they were simple things like I never got to work a proper job or be a mum or get married. But that was the night I got the call for my new heart.”
Her successful second transplant
inspired Aoife to pursue her love of fitness again and become a member of Transplant Team Ireland.
“I was back in the gym six months later and now I train five days a week. I am hoping to compete in the 5k and the petanque.
“You train separately in your desired sport and then we meet out in ALSAA Sports Centre [in Dublin] every few months and we do mixers for Halloween and Christmas.
“It is so nice to be around people who have gone through the same thing and to be able to be a member of the team. To be well enough to compete is incredible.”
Having received her new heart just over a year ago, Aoife is ever mindful of the cost that came with her new life.
“I think of the family [of the donor] and it is fresh for them, and I think how it would feel to receive a letter. I think it is important for people to think about organ donation. Nobody thinks it happens to young people and it does.
“You can get an organ donor card in pharmacies and in hospitals or just tell someone in your family your wishes.
“You could save someone’s life, I’m just so grateful to be given another chance.”