THREE years ago, Stephen Kee was at death’s door.
The Omagh man’s heart had all but given up, and he desperately needed a heart transplant.
As the father-of-one lay in hospital completely helpless, barely breathing and struggling to even function, doctors told him a piece of harrowing and yet intrinsically hopeful news: If they could find a suitable heart within ten days, then he would have a realistic chance of survival. But if they didn’t, he’d be dead.
The clock began ticking.
And what makes Stephen’s story even more terrifying is that his heart failure was not born from his lifestyle choices – ‘I was the same weight then as I was at 25’, he told the Ulster Herald – and it wasn’t genetic.
The problems all began when he suffered from a virus; something that could happen to anyone.
Today, Stephen shares his powerful story to shine a light on the generosity of donors and the incredible, transformational impact they have on transplant recipients.
“My whirlwind journey began when I contracted a virus which began attacking my heart,” Stephen, who is married to Mel (Melanie) said.
“I received some medical intervention, and had a metal pacemaker fitted. This lasted me for 24 months, but the virus returned again and it destroyed the remainder of my heart.
“My deterioration, at this point, was rapid.”
After speaking candidly to the doctors, Stephen was told that there was only one solution: A heart transplant.
He was rushed to the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle Upon Tyne in England – one of the elite transplant hospitals in the whole of Europe – and began receiving an intensive transplant assessment.
“Doctors performed tissue matching tests on me, they checked that the anti-rejection drugs would work, and they also checked the pressures in my chest. Sometimes people receive disappointment at this hurdle; thankfully I didn’t.”
Stephen was placed on the official register, and his case was marked as ‘urgent’.
“Doctors told me I had ten days to live,” Stephen said. “I knew I was ill: I couldn’t breathe, move or walk. My lungs had also stopped functioning.
“I felt like I was going to die in the morning, it was awful.
“Essentially, I knew I was dying.”
But mercifully, just five days later, a donor heart became available and Stephen underwent a successful transplant.
“The heart saved my life,” Stephen said. “And while the road to recovery is never easy, and there are blips, I look at life through different eyes now.
“Every day is a gift.”
The 56-year-old added, “Without a donor, I’d be dead, and my teenage daughter, Hannah, who has special needs, would have no father.
“There are little words to describe the importance of signing on the organ donation register.
“Some people wish to bring their money, power and organs to the grave, but if you donate your organs, you have an ever greater power: To save someone’s life.
“And is there anything more wonderful than that?”