Vegetarian who needed pig and cow heart valves to survive finds human donor
A vegetarian who made the “difficult choice” to have a faulty heart valve replaced with one from a pig has finally received a new valve from a human donor.
Robyn Cairney’s long ordeal began in June 2009 when she was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect and she had to undergo a gruelling four-hour operation to replace her narrowing aortic valve with a pig’s heart valve.
Keen runner Robyn said at the time: “It was a shock when I had the diagnosis and a bigger shock when I was told I needed to have a valve removed and replaced with a valve from a pig.”
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She added: “I’m a vegetarian so it was a difficult choice, but it was a life or death one.”
But, some five years after the op Robyn’s new valve started to fail and she needed a replacement – this time coming from a cow.
And last year she was dealt a fresh blow when a check-up revealed a potential problem. After scans, doctors warned it was likely that the valve would need to be replaced.
In the months that followed, Robyn noticed that she was feeling more breathless than usual. And on May 29 this year, Robyn, 31, and her partner Simon suffered a shock at home in Middlesbrough.
She told the Daily Record: "I remember sitting on the sofa chatting to friends when suddenly I collapsed and blacked out.
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Simon had to perform CPR as pals called an ambulance. The emergency crew came within five minutes and by then Robyn had regained consciousness. She was taken to James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough.
Robyn said: "I can remember being in the ambulance with Simon and feeling confused and very distressed.
"I couldn't quite believe what had happened. It all felt like a bad dream.
"After waiting in A&E for 16 hours, I was admitted to the cardiac monitoring ward."
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A couple of days after she was admitted, doctors explained the cow valve was not opening properly. Her blood pressure was very low, which is what had caused her to collapse.
Doctors told Robyn that due to the complexity of her -condition, she needed to be transferred to a cardiac unit in Newcastle.
Robyn said: "Nine days later, on the eighth of June this year, I was transferred in an -ambulance to The Freeman Hospital where I had open-heart surgery to perform a complex procedure – called the Ross Procedure – which took 10 hours."
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Surgeons had to crack open her breastbone to remove the failed bovine valve. Her own pulmonary valve was moved into its place, then a donor heart valve from a stranger replaced the removed pulmonary valve.
"I've got two heart valves replaced now," said Robyn. "One using one of mine, and another from a stranger, which I'm extremely grateful for.
"The pulmonary valve takes less pressure so it responds better with having a human donor valve.
"Whereas the aortic valve takes a lot of pressure so it responds better to using my own tissue.
"When I woke up after the operation, I was confused and sore. I had a big scar down my chest and lots of stitches."
Robyn came home on June 15 and is slowly recovering.
She said: "I'm looking forward to 2023 and hoping for a much healthier and less stressful year ahead.
"I feel grateful to be here and for all the family and friends who have supported me through it all, visiting me in hospital and at home."
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Robyn studied sports therapy at Teesside University and completed her final year after her second op. She then embarked on a career as a further education studies teacher, specialising in human anatomy.
And twice she took part in the Great North Run to raise money for the British Heart Foundation – first in 2019 and then in 2021.
Now, she has signed up for next year's half marathon and is setting her sights on the big race next September. She said: "I'm gradually getting back into running and am doing a running/walking combination to get my fitness up. I have already come a long way from where I was before the operation earlier this year, when I couldn't walk even half a mile."
Robyn added: "Doctors have said that the new valve should last approximately 15 years and will be strong enough for me to carry children if I want to start a family one day.
"I'm taking one step at a time but I'm forever grateful for the stranger who donated their heart valve to me.
"Thanks to them, I'll hopefully be able to live a normal healthy life.
"I am now looking forward to celebrating Christmas with my partner and family."
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