‘New chance at life’: SA man receives heart transplant after 12-year-long health battle

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  • After years of seeing doctors and specialists, a South African man finally received a heart transplant.
  • This has given him a new chance at life, and he is now advocating for people to become organ donors.
  • In South Africa, 5 000 children and adults are currently awaiting a lifesaving organ or cornea transplant.

In January 2020, Mike Cohen was lucky enough to receive a much-needed, life-saving heart transplant. 

Since then, the entrepreneur and father of two, along with his wife Amy, have worked to raise awareness about how organ donation saves countless lives. 

Currently, around 5 000 children and adults in South Africa are awaiting a lifesaving organ or cornea transplant. 

Here are some important facts about organ donation:

  • One organ donor can save seven other people’s lives. The heart, liver and pancreas can save three lives, while the kidneys and lungs can help up to four people.
  • A tissue donor can help up to 50 people by donating their corneas, skin, bone, tendons, and heart valves.
  • Signing up as an organ donor doesn’t cost you a cent or involve medical tests. You can also change your mind later on.

Mike, who describes his lifelong lifestyle as "active”, played amateur provincial rugby for 16 years when he was younger. He would exercise for around 36 hours a week. "I went to gym five days a week without fail too," he says.

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However, he had no idea that he'd been born without enough blood supply to a small section of his heart. 

In 1999, his heartbeat became irregular, but scans were inconclusive. Then, in 2008, he collapsed on the rugby field. So began a journey of appointments with multiple doctors and specialists. 

By 2017 his heart was massively enlarged. For the next three years, he experienced a series of serious health complications until, in June 2019, his cardiologist suggested he be placed on the transplant list.

organ donation,heart transplant
Mike Cohen with his son and daughter.

Getting onto the heart transplant list

“Getting onto the transplant list means following a thorough process,” says Mike. 

Amy adds: "You have to see many specialists and also make sure you have support at home so that your recovery after your transplant is optimal. There is such a huge need for donor organs in the country, so it's essential to make sure that the recipient will do all they can to protect the donated organ."

Complications

Mike was added to the heart transplant waiting list in September 2019. By January 2020, most of his days were taken up by him sleeping because of constant exhaustion. 

"I prayed all day long that each day would be the day a heart would be available," says Amy.

That same month, Mike got the call telling him to get to the hospital to start the process to receive his new heart. 

Post-transplant

After facing a series of complications once he received his new heart, things eventually began to look up about four months later. 

According to Discovery Health Medical Scheme (DHMS) data:

  • From 2017 to 2021, DHMS funded 48 heart, 41 lung, 112 liver, 243 kidney, 16 pancreas and 166 bone marrow stem cell transplants. Selfless, anonymous organ donors enabled most of these life-saving procedures (including some related living donors for the kidney transplants).
  • In 2021, 101 transplants were carried out costing approximately R71.1 million. 

Mike, who is a DHMS member, expressed his gratitude that the high cost of his treatments, eventual transplant, and the lifelong medicines he must take is covered by the scheme.

Brighter days ahead

The couple welcomed their son in September 2021 – a true blessing and dream come true for their family, they say. 

The once avid-fitness enthusiast is getting stronger by the day. “I can’t manage to run a full 5km route yet,” says Mike. “I kind of do a walk-run but it’s so exciting to be able to exercise!” 

He checks his blood pressure and heart rate daily and adjusts the medicines he takes as advised by his doctors. He’ll continue to be monitored into the future.

READ MORE | From a headline-grabbing roadtrip, to a lifesaving op: 3 years on, 'life is good’ for Cally Wlliams

The need for more organ donors 

Sadly, there is a lack of transplantable organs and need for transplants in many countries worldwide, including South Africa. 

Mike knows things could’ve turned out differently. “Unfortunately, some of the people I’ve met haven’t made it because of the lack of available organs,” he says. Amy adds: "We were given such an amazing gift and we will do all we can to make people aware of the massive need for organ donation."

Says Mike: “We thank the selfless people who sign up and donate as they give others the ultimate gift – another chance at life.”

What you need to know

Organ transplants only take place after a donor has been declared brain dead but is still being supported on a ventilator or through artificial life support. The recipient will receive the donated organ shortly after it is retrieved from the donor. Tissue retrievals can still take place several hours and even days after death. Tissues are stored at a tissue bank and available as needed.

August is National Organ Donor Awareness Month. To become an organ donor, simply register with the Organ Donor Foundation or call 0800 22 66 11 toll-free during office hours.


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