Third chance at life
A bright light and her older brother’s voice signaled to Kat she’d made it.
As she lay in the intensive care unit of The Alfred Hospital, unable to open her eyes or talk thanks to a breathing tube, it was Marcus that let her know she’d done it: the new heart was in, the wait was now over.
“I remember having my eyes closed and hearing my brother’s voice, he’d come in and said, ‘It all went well, you’ve done really well’, and then I remember opening my eyes and seeing him, it was just so special. As soon as I heard his voice, I knew I was fine.”
After discovering a hole in Katrina Rehlaender’s heart as a three-year-old, she had open heart surgery at five to insert a pacemaker, and during a subsequent surgery at 11, contracted MSRA (golden staph) with catastrophic consequences.
“While I was in hospital, I caught golden staph and by the time they found out that’s why I was getting sick instead of better, only 60 per cent of my heart muscles were working.”
The only viable option was a heart transplant, which Kat received on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1993, and after 27 years living with her donor heart, found out last year, she needed a new one.
“Unfortunately, it’s more the medication than the heart itself with regards to how long a transplant lasts. Medication can cause narrowing of the arteries and other issues.
“I started having complications seven years ago, I had the typical heart attack symptoms, neck and chest pain, shoulder pain. I went and got it checked out and they found out I had a blockage.
“Since then I’ve pretty much, almost to the year, had a reoccurring blockage in my LAD; one of the main arteries in my heart. I’ve had check-ups every eight months, and in April last year, they said there was nothing more they could do.”
With her heart functioning at 44 per cent, they started doing workup tests for a new heart.
“There were no other options, bypass surgery would still be open heart surgery and the artery was too thin to graft on to. At this stage I was constantly short of breath, had no energy, was tired and had the typical heart attack symptoms.”
Kat went on the transplant list on August 20, 2019 and after six months, received a life-changing call eight weeks ago – one that would give her a third chance at life.
“I am a very positive person, you try your best to stay positive, but you fear that there’s not enough donors, or hearts. I would look at a photo of my nephew Max and think ‘What happens if I’m not here to see him grow up?’
“I’d be doing all the right things, not drinking, trying to exercise and eat healthy but it wouldn’t make a difference. I’d have no energy, for nearly a year prior to the surgery I was unable to have a social life.
“I’d have to cancel on friends because I’d be unable to get out of bed sometimes. I felt more exhausted as the months went on waiting, just doing daily things would exhaust me.”
Kat would check her phone hundreds of times a day to make sure it was on and working, in case she’d missed the call, but at 2am on February 27, when her phone rang, she knew.
“It was my time; I could hear my phone ringing. It was the transplant co-ordinator Trish who said they think they’d found the perfect heart for me. I was so grateful, so ecstatic in that moment, I was on cloud nine.
“Then I thought of all the appointments I had booked for the week, so I spent the next hour
cancelling and paying bills before we left for Melbourne; I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
Kat’s partner Steve drove her to the Alfred, and on the way, she called her brother Marcus and his wife Mel in Brisbane and her parents in Adelaide to let them know.
“Marcus must’ve hopped on the next plane to be there for when I woke up. My recovery has been nothing like what I imagined – celebrating my third chance of life surrounded by family and friends – not being stuck on my own, in my four walls.”
What was meant to be a time of celebration, has been one of isolation, and with family stuck interstate, she’s had to navigate her recovery without their support.
“Steve and Steve’s family have been amazing, and I have great friends, but I want my mum. I’m not very good at expressing what I need or when I’m struggling.
“Mum would just make me a cup of tea or know just what I need, so it’s been really hard without her. She was going to fly down so Steve could go back to work, but she can’t and that means Steve hasn’t been working either. I thought I’d be going to the movies, and out for dinners, but I’m more alone than ever.”
Taking a cocktail of 50 tablets every day to keep her heart beating and to stay alive, Kat said while it’s tough recovering during a pandemic, she’s still extremely grateful.
“Every day my alarm goes off, I get up, put my makeup on and earrings in and I am grateful to be alive. I was the second-last transplant patient in Australia before they shut everything down.
“I broke the transplant record in Australia for leaving hospital after only eight days. You have good days and bad days, but when you have a bad day, you just have to pick yourself back up and get on with it. We’re all going through the same thing, being isolated and it’s hard, but we’ll get there.”