Teen’s second chance at life after transplant
Lung transplant surgeon Doug Wall kneels beside desperately ill teenager Savannah Fretwell's bed at the Queensland Children's Hospital so he can meet his patient eye-to-eye.
The 16-year-old, who has cystic fibrosis, needs a lung transplant urgently and Dr Wall is upfront.
"This is going to be one of the hardest fights of your life. Are you ready for it?" he asks her.
"I'm ready," she replies, fighting for breath.
Within a day, Savannah, of Mudjimba, on the Sunshine Coast, deteriorates to the point where she is placed in a medically induced coma and hooked up to a ventilator to help her breathe.
She's transferred to The Prince Charles Hospital, home of Queensland's Lung Transplant Service, to wait for donor lungs. Without them, she has weeks, at most, to live.
"Once you get to the point where you're ventilated, really the clock's ticking," explains the service's director, Peter Hopkins.
"You've only got about 10 to 14 days for donor lungs to become available. In my experience, beyond two weeks, very few patients are still eligible for a transplant because they're too sick. They're getting too sick from complications related to ventilation."
Savannah was fortunate. While the average wait for new lungs in Queensland is five months - and some people can wait years for an organ transplant - Savannah was being wheeled into an operating theatre within about 48 hours of arriving at The Prince Charles Hospital.
It was just before last Christmas and she was about to receive a priceless gift - a second chance at life.
For about two years leading into her double lung transplant, Savannah required admission to hospital every six to eight weeks, often for a fortnight or more at a time.
Something as simple as a stroll on the beach had even become a struggle, with the teen having to stop every few minutes to catch her breath.
Late last year, she developed a lung infection, hastening her need for a transplant.
For Savannah's mum Michelle Wyatt, a nurse, the stress of watching her daughter deteriorate rapidly, and to then be told her youngest child would not make it out of hospital without a double lung transplant, became so great, she ended up in hospital herself - with a migraine so fierce she was put on a drip.
"I kept it all together until it just all felt like it was going to blow my head off that night," she says.
Ms Wyatt, a single mum, had little time to recover before returning to Savannah's bedside for some of the most confronting conversations of their lives.
Seven months later, Savannah has little memory of that first meeting with her surgeon, Dr Wall. She relies on her mum for much of the detail surrounding the six-hour transplant that saved her life.
"I can't really remember much because I was so out of it," Savannah explains.
For Ms Wyatt, when the call came that a set of lungs had become available, the joy for her child was mixed with guilt in the knowledge that another family had lost a loved one.
"It was really hard feeling excited," she says.
"It took me a little while to wrap my head around. Now, I think: 'This is such a special thing'. I hope that the other family would be happy to see that this gift has gone to a young girl that's got so much spirit.
"Savannah's always had her life planned out: 'I want to have kids, I want to travel, I want to live in Canada, I'm going to work with animals.' She can actually do all that now without going for a walk and then having to stop and sit on the footpath for awhile to catch her breath. I'm very, very grateful."
Professor Hopkins, who has headed Queensland's only lung transplant service, one of just four in Australia, for almost 13 years, says Savannah is among more than 500 people who have undergone transplants through the unit since the first one in September, 1996.
"She was always very diligent with her care, but Savannah had quite a severe presentation with cystic fibrosis," he says. "We don't have many 16-year-old patients referred for lung transplant."
Professor Hopkins says lung transplants for cystic fibrosis patients, who are typically living into their 40s and 50s these days, are not as common as they once were because of the development of new medications that improve the function of the protein that is defective in people with the disease.
"Around the world last year, only around 13 per cent of all lung transplants were for cystic fibrosis, whereas historically it's typically 25 to 30 per cent," he says.
Savannah's story has reached Health Minister and Deputy Premier Steven Miles, who received a letter from Ms Wyatt about the heartbreak of watching her daughter suffer and her admiration for the medical teams for saving her daughter's life.
"I'm at a loss for words for the support medically, physically, spiritually and emotionally," Ms Wyatt wrote. "Even the cleaners joked around lifting her spirits."
Mr Miles, a father of three, says he was moved by the letter.
"As a parent, my heart goes out to Michelle. No parent ever wants to see their child suffer," he says.
"As Health Minister, I receive a lot of letters and emails telling me how great our hospitals and health workers are. I'm never surprised.
"We have some of the best doctors, nurses, paramedics and health professionals in the world - and many who go above and beyond for their patients."
Savannah, who turned 17 on July 7, dreams of becoming a veterinary nurse at a zoo - an ambition only possible because of a stranger she'll never know.
She breaks down when her donor is mentioned and plans to write to their family once she can find the right words.
"We talk about it all the time," Ms Wyatt says. "Even though it's been six months, it feels like it happened yesterday still. It's very emotive. It just brings everything to the surface again."
On the anniversary of the transplant in December, they plan to mark the day by hiring a boat and snorkelling on the Maroochy River - celebrating life.
* To register as a potential organ donor: donatelife.gov.au