And Robbie Kleinloog, the cardiothoracic surgeon who led the 11-strong transplant team for the challenging 11-hour, life-saving operation, made sure he was there to shake his patient’s hand and wish him well.
“Matthew has never had a day’s normal life in his 19 years, but now he can,” said Kleinloog, who slept next to his patient’s bed for two nights to ensure there were no complications from the lengthy operation.
His patient, who has been on permanent oxygen and on the transplant waiting list for seven years, could not wait to go home to Hillcrest.
“I can now breathe. I am no longer sick and can do what I want to do. Today is the start of a normal life,” he said.
He gave Kleinloog and his “amazing team” a “very big thank you”. He also thanked the family of the unnamed organ donor for their generosity.
Legemaate was only the seventh patient in Africa to have a heart and double-lung transplant, with all the operations performed in Durban by Kleinloog. There have been only 10 like it in the world and there was just one in the US last year.
Kleinloog, who has done 155 transplants, said Legemaate’s transplant was the most difficult he and his team had done.
Time had been running out for Legemaate, with his condition deteriorating. Kleinloog said he didn’t think he would have lasted longer than a year without a transplant.
Legemaate was born with a defect between two heart chambers and a missing link between his heart and lungs, which included a pulmonary valve, and the arteries in the lungs were underdeveloped. He had his first operation in Johannesburg when he was just 36 hours old and doctors warned his parents, Janet and Brian, that he was not expected to pull through. But their little fighter survived and a further six open-heart surgeries followed.
He also developed a lung disease that hampered oxygen and blood flow. Now and again, Legemaate’s feet went blue, an indication that less oxygen was going to the brain and other organs.
When he was told there was nothing more that could be done to help him, he was put on the organ transplant list.
Because of Legemaate’s previous operations, Kleinloog knew the team was in for a challenging time should donor organs became available. There was a lot of scar tissue, a lot that was stuck together and extra blood vessels had formed.
“There were millions of little points that could bleed,” the surgeon said.
And, because he knew that it would take a long time to get all three old organs out before the new ones could be transplanted, it meant that the donor organs had to be available locally as there was no time to fly to another city and collect them.
Legemaate’s mother received a phone call asking her to measure her son’s chest. Compatible, right-sized donor organs were about to become available. Her son was admitted to hospital and with the transplant team assembled, the non-stop surgery got under way.
It took the team three hours to remove the old organs - triple the normal time for this.
While waiting for his triple transplant, Legemaate and his family worked tirelessly to add names to the organ donor register and the latest count was nearly 11 000 new names.
Legemaate is planning to take up archery again - being so weak, he could not pull the bow - get his driving licence, travel and study to become a photographer.