Steve's change of heart

Donor heart recipient Stephen McNamara is determined make the most of his new lease on life, using his experience to benefit his students and the community at large.

The Marist College Eastwood English and RE Teacher discovered he had a heart arrhythmia by chance 18 years ago.

Initially his condition was managed by medication, but as it worsened over time he was referred to the transplant clinic at St Vincent’s Hospital, to be regularly monitored and tested to see if he met the criteria for a transplant.

In 2012, soon after returning from a school football tour, he suffered an arrest and was in a coma for 49 days.

After 63 days in hospital he recovered enough to go home, but relied on an artificial pump sewn into his left ventricle (LVAD) wired through his abdomen to keep him alive.

“I had no pulse for a year. It was a bit confronting, facing your own mortality like that,” Stephen said.

A year to the day after his heart attack, Stephen learnt a donor heart was available for him.

Life in surgeon's hands

“I was relieved, excited and surprisingly calm as I placed my life in the surgeon’s hands. Part of the process of waiting for a transplant is to be educated around the difficulties of organ availability, how difficult it is to find a match, and how someone who might have greater needs could get the heart at the last minute.

“You need a donor who is generally both younger than you and bigger than you to provide a strong enough heart. And of course the rate of donation in Australia is low. There are a lot of odds going against it.” At any point in time there are 1600 patients waiting for an organ transplant in Australia.

When Stephen arrived at St Vincent’s for his transplant, the nurses on duty greeted him with ‘happy birthday, we’ve been expecting you!’

The process was no overnight sensation, with an arduous rehabilitation process following the transplant.

Stephen said of all the medical procedures he had to undergo, the 13 heart biopsies to make sure his heart was not being rejected were the most unnerving.

“Having a tube inserted into your carotid artery, and a piece of your heart snipped off was something I found hard to mentally approach even though I had great faith in the medical staff.”

Stephen’s surgery scar also tore three times, and the third time he had to have a 15cm mesh surgically inserted under the wound to keep it together.

I had no pulse for a year. It was a bit confronting, facing your own mortality like that

Feeling the fittest

Now Stephen is feeling “the fittest I have been in a long time” and looking forward to getting his career back on track. He was a year coordinator before the illness, and he hopes to resume that position next year.

He said his return to work was a “unique” situation never encountered by Sydney CEO, and the IEU’s assistance in negotiating the uncertainties had been invaluable.

With only 77 heart transplants carried out in Australia in 2013, Stephen is using his rare status as an educational tool for his students. He was the beneficiary of being one of 1122 transplants from 391 donors.

“I learnt a great deal about how you cope with an extreme situation. I’ve been diligent about completing all of medication education physiotherapy, meditation, rehabilitation exercise programs, psychological support, diet management and counselling suggested by the transplant team.

“I learnt a lot about the medical process, about mental health and resilience, which I share with the students.

“I also have addressed the Senior Science HSC students and their feedback about meeting a person who is a living embodiment of key points on the curriculum has been incredibly positive.”

Stephen also wants to honour his donor not only by living life to the full but by raising funds for the Australian Heart and Lung Transplant Association, which supports patients at St Vincent’s Hospital’s Heart/Lung Transplant Clinic.

City to Surf raised funds for St Vincent’s

Stephen recently completed the City to Surf in 2hrs 21min, and was sponsored to raise funds for St Vincent’s, including by his students.

He also had plans to take part in the cycle race and 3km run at the Transplant Games in western Sydney at the end of this month.

Stephen encourages anyone who has not registered as an organ donor to do so.

“You may have said you want to be a donor, but it’s important to discuss it with your family and have it formally registered, so there’s no confusion or conflict about your wishes.”

To register:


Sue Osborne