My double lung transplant and the stranger who gave me my life back

Born with cystic fibrosis, 19-year-old Kate Hennessy was hours from death when a double lung transplant saved her. A year on, she describes her gratitude to the saviour she will never meet

After a lifetime of coping with cystic fibrosis, in August last year it looked as though my life was over. I was in Harefield Hospital, awaiting a donated pair of lungs to replace my diseased ones. I had become used to constant infections and constant treatments and a life interrupted by long stays in hospital. But now I was barely conscious as my condition declined and a machine took over the job of oxygenating my blood. Then the machine was no longer sufficient and my family had to face it: I had only hours to live. That I am here to tell this story is down to a stranger I never knew and will never meet.

I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when I was four and a half months old. At that point, I weighed less than when I was born, and I'd already had a number of bouts of pneumonia. Nobody was really sure what was wrong with me and it took a while to figure out. One day, my dad gave me a kiss on the forehead and noticed I tasted very salty. That's one of the biggest clues for cystic fibrosis: really salty sweat.

Until my teenage years, I was mostly OK. I was an active child and did professional trampolining and ballet. I even went to the Reading Festival when I was 13 and have tried to go every year since. I was on a lot of tablets and had various antibiotics but most of the time I could lead a reasonably normal life and didn't have to spend too much time in hospital. Then, when I was 14, I got an infection and just didn't really recover. From then on, I was on intravenous antibiotics regularly and I just got worse and worse bouts of infections that put me in hospital for longer and longer. I was just deteriorating.

From then on, I missed a lot of school. I tried to keep up with my work but one year I had a 39 per cent attendance record. I still managed to get my GCSEs, including two As. I attended sixth form even less and it got to the point where I couldn't carry on.

It was a really stressful time for everyone. I was doing all of the treatments but I never got better enough to have a life. One thing I did manage to do was go to the Reading Festival in 2011. But even that was in a wheelchair. We took a trailer and everyone gave me piggybacks everywhere. Being ill was hard, but I tried to focus on the good things in my life.

I was put on the transplant list in September 2011 because of my poor lungs: they were functioning at about 29 per cent. I had to use a stairlift at home because I was unable to make it up the stairs. I would stay in hospital because I couldn't face going home. It was very scary. My parents have always been very, very honest with me and I think that's definitely something that helped me to cope. I always knew that it was serious and what could happen.

Being on the waiting list for a lung transplant is scary. I know people who have waited for two years and someone who waited two days; it's just what becomes available. There's so much to take into consideration with a match-up: blood type, tissue type, size, quality.

By March of last year, I had to go into hospital and go on oxygen. Over a very quick period of time, I went from not using an awful lot to using loads. Then that wasn't enough. I wasn't able to breathe independently and had to get a BPAP breathing-support machine, which is a mask that fits over your nose and mouth and helps to push air in to inflate your lungs. My stay in hospital was now pretty much continuous.

I was transferred to Harefield Hospital in August, where they do heart and lung transplants, and that was when I was told that I didn't have many days left. The doctors explained that I would have to go on an ECMO machine, which basically would take out my blood, oxygenate it, and put it back. They also told me that I could live on it for only a week.

I don't remember an awful lot about that time. I was in and out of consciousness. My friends would come and visit me but I would just fall asleep a lot of the time. They thought it would be the last time they were going to see me. The machine that was oxygenating my blood then started not to work sufficiently and that was it. I had hours to live.

The doctors later told me that if the chance of a transplant had arrived just eight hours later, I wouldn't be here now. I awoke to lots of people in my room, telling me they had a lung, and I was to go into theatre. Strangely, one of the main things I remember was that they had to cut off all the Reading Festival wristbands that I'd kept on and I was really upset about it.

I was unconscious for a good few days after the operation and when they told me that I'd had the transplant I couldn't believe it. I had some problems after that because my body wasn't accepting the lungs the way it should have and I ended up having to have a tracheostomy, which was horrible. I wasn't able to speak, eat or drink for a few weeks. I was so weak I couldn't lift my hand up or press the "on" button of the television remote. It was so gruesome and painful, just a living nightmare.

But eventually, bit by bit, I got better. And they let me go home for a couple of days in October. All my friends were there and my parents bought me the biggest bouquet of flowers. I was still in and out of hospital but I managed to go on holiday to France, where I went on a three-hour zip-wire trail, which was amazing.

I've always appreciated getting these lungs, but the past few months I've been able to live my life and really enjoy having it. I appreciate everything that's been given to me – it's such an incredible gift, and I'm just getting the full benefit of it now. It's completely transformed my life; it saved my life. I missed a good five years so I feel like I have a lot to catch up on.

I've been thinking of writing a letter to my donor's family because I don't know anything about them. It's quite a scary concept. You don't know who this person is or whether they had a family, or had kids, or were about to get married. But they did something so incredible and profound that I feel like I should know them: what they did, what they enjoyed doing.

Organ donation can change someone's life. One in three cystic fibrosis patients will die waiting, but it doesn't need to be that way. It's so important to sign up to organ donation, and to tell your loved ones if you have. It's the best gift you can give. My parents didn't have to lose their daughter, my brother didn't have to watch his sister be buried. My friends didn't have to say goodbye. None of that happened because of that one incredible person who did something amazing.

Interview by Gillian Orr

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
people Ex-wife of John Lennon has died at her home in Spain
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

    £14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a security software com...

    Recruitment Genius: Telemarketing / Sales Co-ordinator - OTE £25,000+

    £10000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of staffing and r...

    Recruitment Genius: Kitchen Porter

    £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the four inns of Court is seeking...

    Recruitment Genius: Chef De Partie

    £20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the four inns of Court i...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?