A six-year-old girl given just hours to live unless she received a new heart was recovering in hospital yesterday after a donor was found.
Sally Slater was said by surgeons to be "very poorly but on the road to recovery". She had the seven-hour operation early yesterday at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne.
The donor, who has not been named, was found after Sally's father, Jon Slater, made a nationwide plea for help on Thursday. "We are exhausted but absolutely delighted," he said yesterday. "It's still early days - but hopefully everything is going to be all right.
"We have no idea where the heart came from, if it was in response to the appeal, or if the donors knew where the heart was going. All I know is that I will never be able to repay that family for giving my little girl a chance.
"Somebody somewhere lost someone last night. If this heart is going to keep Sally alive then it is because of those kind people. I hope they can get some comfort during their grief knowing that they have helped someone else. I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart."
Three weeks ago Sally, who has two brothers, Joe, aged five and Charlie, three, was a fit and healthy schoolgirl. But one morning she told her parents that she did not feel well and her mother, Bridget Slater, a college lecturer, kept her off school for the day.
She became progressively worse and her parents took her to a hospital in Leeds where doctors found she was suffering from a virus that had reached her heart and caused cardiomyopathy, which attacks the heart muscles.
She was taken to the Freeman Hospital where she remained for the next two weeks while a mechanical pump, inserted during open heart surgery, kept her alive and her parents waited for a suitable donor to be found. At the end of last week, Mr and Mrs Slater, both 36 and from Malham, North Yorkshire, were told their daughter stood no chance of survival without a transplant and that she could die by the end of the weekend.
Then, in the early hours of yesterday, they heard that a heart had been found and, more importantly, that it was a suitable match.
A hospital spokesman said yesterday: "Surgeons performed a heart transplant at around 1am on Sunday. News of a donor came through just before midnight and there was an anxious wait to see if the heart was a match.
"Sally was rushed to theatre a short while later. She is still very ill but she is recovering."
Yesterday as he peered through the glass that separated him from his daughter, Mr Slater, a financial adviser, described the moment when they heard a heart had been found. "We were told there was no guarantee it would match. We then had an agonising wait. The hours that passed seemed like days - but then the news we had dreamed of came through. No words can describe how we felt at that moment."
During the long hours of the operation, Mr Slater, who is not yet allowed to touch his daughter because of the risk of infection, said that he relived her life in minute detail. "I thought of every moment I've had with my little girl, but I also thought about the person whose heart she was receiving."
But he added that both he and his wife were still trying to prepare themselves for the worst. "The risk of infection is huge and we are still apprehensive. Sally is heavily sedated and won't be conscious for a number of days because she was so ill when the transplant was performed.
"We don't want to run away with ourselves. Me and Bridget are ecstatic and if something goes wrong now, the fall will be even greater. We are preparing ourselves for that. But what I do know is a few hours agomy daughter didn't have a chance. Now she has a glimpse of hope."
Last year 12 children under the age of six had heart transplants in Britain. There are currently 600 people on the waiting list for heart donations.
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