Can you imagine what it’s like to breathe through someone else’s lungs? Alastair Henry does. In 2020 he had a double lung transplant at the age of 75. He’s only too aware of his responsibility to the donor, to make the best of this gift of extra life. Alastair shares his story and thoughts on organ donation.
It was great to have Alastair back on the podcast. You may remember him from Episode No. 9 - Awakening in the Northwest Territories where he shared an extraordinary experience in the Canadian wilds of Lutsel Ké. Alastair so frankly talks about his experiences building up to - and following - his double lung transplant. My favourite takeaway is the responsibility that Alastair feels towards his donor. He could only complete his book “The Soldier and the Orphan” because he was given extra life. It’s a very tangible demonstration of what he has achieved through his donor's generosity.
Organ transplants worldwide are being held back through a lack of sufficient donor organs. I’ve put a few links below as a starting point to learning a little more about this.
World Health Organisation - Transplantation
Organ Donation summary
Last week's episode
[Episode 15] Extroverts Don't Need Any Help - How are your communication skills these days? No, I don’t mean public speaking or standing up to make a presentation. How are you communicating with your spouse, your children, and your postman? Brenden Kumarasamy, the founder of MasterTalk and top communications coach, shares some simple tips for us all. He’s a blast, by the way. His comments on introverts are hilarious (and I’m one!)
Next week's episode
[Episode 17] Better The Devil You Know - Having previously spoken to near-death experience witnesses, I was keen to uncover how science viewed this extraordinary phenomenon. I tracked down data scientist David Gerrelli. I wasn’t expecting what I heard.
Contact Batting the Breeze:
- Email us at email@example.com
- Chat with us on Facebook
Thanks for listening!
[00:00:00] Steve: How does it feel to breathe through someone else's lungs?
[00:00:05] alastair_henry: I almost can feel the person's spirit. Where is a spirit? Is it in your heart? Is it in your brain? Is it in your DNA? I mean, everybody has a spirit. Every breath I take, I'm breathing in through somebody else's [00:00:20] DNA. And I think, you know, there's a piece of that person in me now. I'm... aware of that. Weird.
[00:01:08] alastair_henry: I was really having trouble breathing. I felt like I was sucking air through a straw. It was progressive. In a way because I was 74 and I'd [00:01:20] smoked a pack of cigarettes, a pack a day for 50 years, I really wasn't surprised. I expected that one day there would be a day of reckoning. I just thought, "Okay, my time is... you know, finally I didn't quit, I should have, but I didn't, and I have to pay the price".
[00:01:38] Steve: Meet [00:01:40] Alistair Henry. That name might be familiar to you. We met him in episode nine up in a First Nation settlement in Canada called Lutsel Ké. You might want to pop back and have a listen. This part of Alistair's story starts a few years [00:02:00] later at Christmas in 2018. He was living in London, Ontario when he visited his doctor to talk about his breathing issues. The outcome, a quickly arranged trip to a respirologist.
[00:02:16] alastair_henry: ...who immediately put me on oxygen [00:02:20] 24/7 at three litres per minute because.... that's what I needed because my oxygenation was like seventy instead of being in the nineties. If you can't get enough oxygen, you know, that affects all of your organs, your brain, everything. And that's not good because [00:02:40] then you've got all this organ deterioration if you're not breathing adequately.
[00:02:45] Steve: The respirologist told Alistair that he had Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. It's a chronic disease where the lungs become scarred and breathing becomes increasingly difficult.[00:03:00] Life expectancy between three and five years.
[00:03:10] alastair_henry: I said, "Well you know, I need to know a little better than that". They said, "Well, your fibrosis is quite advanced, so bank on [00:03:20] 18 months. So here we are, January 2019, eighteen months puts me at June 2020. So I looked at that as my best before date. I thought, "Okay, I've got 18 months". And the funny thing is when you get a best before date, it changes everything. It changes your [00:03:40] perspective on everything.
[00:03:41] Steve: So with a best before date, of 18 months, what happens next?
[00:03:49] alastair_henry: I thought, "Okay, I wanna go back to England. I wanna say goodbye to my sister and my uncle. uncles and nephews and friends. And I want to take [00:04:00] my children, my three children and my three grandchildren with me and Candace, so there was eight of us. So we went for two weeks to Manchester because it's a base for Bolton where I was from. And then down to Guernsey because my relatives live in Guernsey.
[00:04:18] Steve: So the [00:04:20] UK trip is a success, but now behind them and Alastair's condition is worsening noticeably.
[00:04:28] alastair_henry: I'm needing to dial up my oxygen intake from three litres to five litres to seven. So I was about eight liters at Christmas time and you know, [00:04:40] I just accepted, okay, I've got six months to live. We all, we all have a best before date. We just don't know what it is, but we all have one. And I'm fortunate I've been given one, so I know I've got six months to do what I need to do, but a lot of people don't, you know, they get injured or they [00:05:00] lose the life in a traffic accident or some illness comes up, some cancer takes him within two weeks.
[00:05:07] Steve: The children weren't quite so prepared to be as sanguine as Alastair and they encouraged him to consider a lung transplant. He wasn't so sure and was thinking...[00:05:20]
[00:05:20] alastair_henry: I'm too old for a start, and there's not enough lungs donated. You know, they're gonna give 'em to younger people. Anyway, I checked with my doctor and whatever, and I learned that I was eligible because my health was good other than my lungs. you go on the waiting list and you have to live within two hours of the[00:05:40] hospital. Fortunately, London is two hours. So I was allowed to live in London. If I lived in Windsor or somewhere else, I'd actually have to move and live in Toronto waiting for the call.
[00:05:54] Steve: "There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip". [00:06:00] And so it is for many people on organ donation waiting lists. It's just part of the deal. There's going to be some ups and downs along the way. There certainly were for Alastair, the recognition that he needed a double-lung transplant was one of them. Double trouble.[00:06:20] The first call that a donor organ may be ready for transplant came in the July.
[00:06:26] alastair_henry: They said, yes, we have some lungs, come on to the hospital immediately. Well, I had a backpack. just grabbed it and went up to the hospital.
[00:06:37] alastair_henry: It's a very, very invasive [00:06:40] surgery, as you can imagine. And I thought, "You know what? That's it. I might just not... you know, at my age, I'm not 40 or 50, I was 74. 75 actually by then, cause I had a birthday in June. Anyway, we got in there, they prepped me and everything and then, unfortuntely the lungs weren't [00:07:00] good enough, so they said, We have... we've canceled the surgery, so go home. Sorry, but you know, it's better we do this". Then I came up again in August. Same deal... the lungs weren't good enough.
[00:07:13] Steve: Unbelievably in the September, for a third time, Alastair's hospital [00:07:20] trip came to nothing.
[00:07:21] alastair_henry: Everything looked great. Surgery was scheduled for 06:30 in the morning. I went to sleep, but at four o'clock they woke me up and said, "Just to let you know, we've canceled the surgery. The lungs just aren't good enough. So go back to sleep and you'll be going home in the morning".[00:07:40]
[00:07:40] Steve: The build-ups and subsequent let-downs are tiring, stressful. But just as Alistair was packing up to go home after breakfast, he was interrupted to be told...
[00:07:53] alastair_henry: "... another set of lungs has just become available. They look really good, so don't go home. Give us an hour [00:08:00] to check them out". They came back in an hour and said, "Everything looks great. Surgery's going to be at 04:30 this afternoon.
[00:08:07] alastair_henry: Big 12 hour surgery. Came out, [00:08:20] and that's... over two years ago now, and I think to myself, you know, I'd had not been in the hospital prepped, maybe they would've given these lungs to somebody else and... I might never have got the lungs.
[00:08:34] Steve: You weren't on that waiting list for very long, were you? It sounds to me like you were quite lucky?
[00:08:39] alastair_henry: [00:08:40] Yeah, I'm quite lucky. Obviously the lungs, it has to be the right blood type. It has to be the right size. And I think because I was in hospital prepped ready, and the lungs became available, I think they just said, [00:09:00] "Hey, let's give them to this guy. He's here now". So very, very, I've been very lucky in life, Steve, of one way or another, for some reason. Weird. I have been a very lucky, lucky person. I went on the waiting list in June of 2020, and in September I had a double lung transplant.[00:09:20]
[00:09:20] Steve: Of course, Alastair's new lease of life was dependent on the generosity of the donor. I asked Alastair if he knew who the donor was.
[00:09:30] alastair_henry: Well this is it in Canada, organ donations are anonymous. I don't know whose lungs I've got. And the donor [00:09:40] family don't know who got the lungs. I did write a letter to the donor family and they wrote back and said, "Well, we're very pleased, and he would be". Now the rest of it retracted, you know, the name and whatever, but they left the 'he' in there. So it was a male. I have a sense it was a much younger person. [00:10:00] I mean they weren't looking for a 75 year old to donate his lungs. You know, the lungs come from whoever. I got a feeling my lungs are from a 25 year old cause they feel so good, so amazing.
[00:10:14] Track 1: What would you say to the donor if you could speak to them?
[00:10:17] alastair_henry: I'd really like them to know who got the [00:10:20] lungs because I'd like to tell them the things that I've done with the new lungs. of them was writing my book. I started a book in 2016 and didn't get a chance to finish it. I did finish it with my new lungs, and now I feel so excited about it because... [00:10:40] people are reading my story. The story wouldn't exist had I not had the transplant.
[00:10:47] Steve: That book, incidentally is called 'The Soldier and the Orphan'. Check it out in the show notes. So what has the organ donation meant for Alastair?
[00:10:58] alastair_henry: Well, you know... [00:11:00] receiving the gift of life, it meant that I would be here to experience and enjoy more of my children and grandchildren's life, to see Keifer graduate... he's doing a masters. He wants to be a prof and he wants to be an English teacher. Beckett's gonna go to university next year. It [00:11:20] would be the fact that I'm still here able to witness and be part of their lives.
[00:11:26] Steve: The first successful human organ [00:11:40] transplant was carried out in 1954. A kidney transplanted from one identical twin to the other in Boston, Massachusetts. Despite this, globally, 1.2 million people a year die from kidney failure.
[00:11:57] Steve: The greatest global problem [00:12:00] relating to organ transplants is a shortage of donor organs. Demand far exceeds supply.
[00:12:09] Steve: The Council of Europe estimates that worldwide 41,000 patients receive a transplant each year, but [00:12:20] 48,000 new patients register on waiting lists. The problem is easy to see. I asked Alastair if he felt that organ donation in Canada was becoming more accepted.
[00:12:33] alastair_henry: A lot of people don't get organs, you know, they just die waiting [00:12:40] on the wait list, waiting for organs. So I felt very, very fortunate, very blessed.
[00:12:46] alastair_henry: The only thing I think what is happening in Canada anyway, we're becoming less religious, more secular. And I think the resistance to organ donations was religious. A lot of people [00:13:00] said, "No, that's a desecration of the body. I want to be put in the ground whole. I don't want to be missing a pancreas and missing my eyeballs and missing my lungs. But I think little by little in Canada, as we've become more secular, it's... people are more open now to organ [00:13:20] donations.
[00:13:20] Steve: The Council of Europe also suggests that a single donor can save eight lives through organ donation and improve up to a hundred lives along the way. But it's good to remember that behind the statistics lie real people, people who have been given extended [00:13:40] life because of organ donation. Statistics, politics, religious beliefs all help to distract from the fact that at its very core, organ donation helps people like Alistair to live longer, to spend more time with loved ones. [00:14:00] What could possibly be wrong with that. As Alistair puts it...
[00:14:05] alastair_henry: ...don't take your organs to heaven. Heaven knows we need them here on earth.
Here are some great episodes to start with. Or, check out episodes by topic.