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Simon Ripley's heart transplant at 24 changed his world
Simon Ripley's heart transplant not only saved his life but turned him into a champion sportsman. Peter Barron tells his inspirational story
TODAY marks an anniversary that Simon Ripley will never forget – it is the day he came home from hospital after having a heart transplant and began his “new life”.
His mum and dad, waiting for news at home in Darlington, weren’t expecting him to be discharged from hospital so quickly but he’d made such a remarkable recovery that he was allowed to surprise them.
Simon was, of course, happy to be home but it wasn’t long before he was on his way round to his local pub, The Wheatsheaf, to celebrate with his childhood friend Andy Watson. “I still wasn’t allowed alcohol at that stage but I had a pint of lemonade and it tasted really good. My life had been transformed. I felt fantastic – it was like starting again,” recalls Simon.
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Simon was just 24 when he underwent his life-saving heart transplant on May 25, 2008, at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. He’d had leukaemia as a child but the doctors thought he was clear, except he always seemed to develop a chest infection around Christmas. In December 2007, the infection was more severe than usual and it just kept getting worse. Simon didn’t know it at the time but he was, in fact, in the early stages of heart failure, with a condition called cardiomyopathy.
Simon has won four cycling golds in the British Transplant Games.
His passion was football but he couldn’t last more than five or ten minutes before feeling exhausted. He didn’t even have the strength to play with his two-year-old little boy Dylan.
Then, on March 22, his 24th birthday, a friend noticed that he had a yellow complexion. His organs were failing and he ended up in a high-dependency unit at Darlington Memorial Hospital under the expert care of professor Gerry Murphy. He was “blue-lighted” up to the Freeman Hospital and assessed for a heart transplant. By then, he was deteriorating so quickly that he would have been dead by Christmas had a suitable heart not become available.
In May, he got the call to say there was a heart for him, and he was prepared for the operation, only to be told at the last minute that the donated organ wasn’t suitable. It was a crushing blow but, weeks later, he received a call at 2am to say another heart had become available and, this time, the transplant went ahead.
As Simon waited to go into the operating theatre, the Freeman’s transplant co-ordinator Lynn Holt, tossed a book onto his bed. It was about the British Transplant Games. “You’re competing in those next year,” she told him.
The seeds were sown for what was to become a glittering sporting career in his “new life”. Within six days of emerging from the operation, Simon was on an exercise bike in the hospital and, by September, he was having his first game of football. With Lynn Holt’s words still fresh in his mind, he started to find out more about the British Transplant Games and registered for the cycling events, but a chest infection stopped him from competing.
“I rocked up on a clapped-out old bike in 2010 and got blown away because I’d underestimated the standard,” he says. It made him all the more determined and, a year later, he was primed for action on a better bike in Belfast, winning gold in the time trial and silver in the road race. Since then, he’s won four cycling golds in the British Transplant Games, plus a gold in the archery, silver in the javelin and bronze in volleyball. However, his biggest sporting achievement is winning a bronze medal in the World Transplant Games in South Africa in 2013.
“That was massive because I was competing against all kinds of organ transplant patients – it was the first time a heart transplant recipient had medalled.”
He is now training for the European Transplant Games in Finland, flying out on July 9 to compete in the cycling 20k road race and 4k cross country. Halfords Auto Centre, where he works as a car mechanic, is sponsoring his travel and the Freeman Hospital Heart and Lung Transplant Association also contributes to the costs.
All Simon knows about the donor who gave him his “new life” is that he was an 18-year-old called David from the Leeds area. He’d suffered a brain haemorrhage. “I think about him a lot,” says Simon. “If it wasn’t for him, and his family, I wouldn’t have been given a second chance. I can’t thank them enough.”
And that is Simon’s main reason for telling his story today – to get across the message that being an organ donor can make such a difference.
“It’s not just about carrying a donor card yourself but making sure your loved ones know that’s what you want,” he says.
Simon’s son Dylan is ten now and his partner Charlotte has a seven-year-old daughter, Ellie-Louise. This time round, in his new life, he has plenty of energy to play with them.
Indeed, he was at taekwondo training with Dylan when he got the call to say Charlotte had gone into labour and he had to make a very different type of hospital dash to the one he’d made eight years ago. Baby Louie is now a joyful addition to the family.
“David’s heart didn’t just give me a new life, it made another new life possible,” says Simon.
•To find out more about being an organ donor, go to organdonation.nhs.uk or call 03001 232 323.
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