Geoff Kirkman interview with Larine Statham-Blair

Geoff underwent a heart transplant in 2016 and walks more than 15,000 steps a day. He enjoys dancing and riding his bike.

Larine (L): Hello Geoff, nice to meet you. Would you mind discussing your organ donation story? When did your journey begin?

Geoff (G): Well, it was 2003. I was a fitness fanatic, I would ride my bike to work, I was playing touch football regularly, generally fit and in good health. I had just arrived in my motel room on holidays, after a long drive, when I felt a pain in the back of my neck and the back of my shoulders. What I found out later was that it was a ‘heart event’. Some plaque had made its way into my heart, and killed 60 per cent of my heart. I was fit enough at that time to survive that, and if I wasn’t, I’d be dead now. I lived like this for another twelve years, but my heart slowly deteriorated.

L: Another 12 years?

G: Yes, and my heart was slowly decaying. I had got to a point where my heart was only working at 14 per cent of capacity. My doctor was very forthcoming, and said ‘you’re not going to survive another year’. I put it to him and said, ‘well, how about a transplant?’. He then processed the paperwork and got the ball rolling.

L: And when was that?

G:  2014.

L: And when was the transplant Geoff?

G: 2016. Prior to this, I ended up in hospital, and was attached to a mechanical heart. They open you up, cut the heart out, cut a hole in the bottom of it and then insert a pump in there. It gets sewn back in, there’s a lead coming out of you, and you walk around with a battery pack.

L: Like Iron Man!

G: Yes! That basically keeps you going. I had complications with it, but I’m very lucky. After six weeks of this, a heart became available.

L: Where were you when you received that call? Or were you still in hospital?

G: I was still in hospital. I was at the point that I couldn’t leave. Either stay and die, or receive a heart and get out. The moment I found out about the new heart, I was recovering from a bad operation. I was sore, and heading into my first shower post-op. And then the surgeon came running in, and he was frantic. ‘We’ve got one for you! We’ve got one!’, he said. They had to run tests on the heart first, and then it was time to go in.

L: That’s really scary Geoff. To people who have never had major health issues, the concept of something like this would be terrifying.

G: When you’re in there, and part of it, and people are passing away all around you, you could get negative. But you’ve got to think ‘I am going to survive this, I am going to make it’. Anyway, to get you ready for the heart transplant procedure, you undergo many tests. Psychological profiles, tissue typing, a billion blood tests. This is not only to get you ready physically, but you’ve got to be mentally capable. You need to be able to accept, mentally and emotionally, that you’ve got a new heart and somebody has died for this to happen.

L: I never realised until conducting these interviews, that that it is common for a body to start rejecting donated organs after five years. Is that a concern for you Geoff?

G: It is, but I’m doing very well. I continue to look after myself, I really am a bit of a fanatic about it. I make sure to follow the guidelines that were given to me, the dos and don’ts, non-drinker, non-smoker.

L: How did you go about adjusting to that burden, the mental aspect of ‘this is my heart now’? Did you ever have moments of sadness that someone lost their life for you to receive your heart?

G: Yes, I have. You have emotional come downs after such a big life event. When I received my heart, I went through three operations first. The first was bad. All of my sutures opened up, and they had to join my chest back together, which was another emergency operation. After the transplant operation, I had days where I would wake up and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk to people. I was having my own time until I was ready. So yes, I had a downer afterwards, psychologically.

L: How old are your children Geoff?

G: I have two sons, one who is 41 and the other is 38, and a daughter-in-law who is 35.

L: And how did they cope with your battle?

G: They struggled a bit, but also made them stronger in some ways. I was always healthy, Dad never got sick. Always playing touch football and staying fit. So yeah, it was a shock to them for sure.

L: It sounds like you’re still staying active, what activities are you doing to stay healthy?

G: I don’t do touch football anymore, what I do now is a lot of walking. I usually do around 15,000 to 17,000 steps a day. When the weather gets too hot, I do reduce that down a bit. I also do a lot of walking at work too.

L: And how would you say you’ve changed since your experience? Have you noticed any changes to your personality?

G: Oh yes. I’ve definitely mellowed. I’m a good communicator and try to stay calm. Although I’m still guilty of micro-managing. I was in management roles prior, but I’ve happily demoted myself to less stressful roles.

L: How do you see yourself now Geoff? As a survivor?

G: Absolutely. I’m a man that’s had a second chance at life.

Read the full Gift of Life photo essay story  The gift of life

Special thanks to local organ donation specialist nurse, Karen Jenner.