Tina’s race against time

Tina Beckbessinger and cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Robbie Kleinloog.

Tina Beckbessinger and cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Robbie Kleinloog.

Published Nov 17, 2011


Time was running out for Tina Beckbessinger of Hillcrest, who was born with a heart defect and had never led a normal life, or drawn a normal breath.

With two holes in her heart, a missing valve and pulmonary hypertension, which put pressure on her lungs, she has been on medication since her mother, Bev, found out about her condition when she was three months old.

Beckbessinger had had two pacemakers fitted, was never allowed to do physical education at school and had never had a job – she did not have the energy.

She was so sick that she could not walk up steps without stopping. Cleaning her teeth and brushing her hair exhausted her and she could sleep up to 20 hours at a time.

When Beckbessinger went out with friends, she would have to sit down and dance with her arms because the real thing was out of the question.

She knew she would have to have an organ transplant one day – and because of her condition, knew she would have to receive a new heart and lungs.

Beckbessinger, 30, has been on the organ donor transplant waiting list for two and a half years and despaired of getting a new lease of life.

Donors are scarce and heart/lung operations rare.

Not only did she have to have a compatible donor, but the transplanted organs would have to be the correct size, too.

Then came the long-awaited call from the Ethekwini Hospital and Heart Centre on October 29: donor organs had become available, but first X-rays and measurements had to be taken to confirm that they were the size Beckbessinger needed.

They were. Then it was all systems go for the rare operation. It would be the first heart/lung transplant at the hospital this year.

Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Robbie Kleinloog, who was to lead the 15-strong transplant team, flew to another province in a jet paid for by the Organ Donor Foundation to harvest the organs.

Names of donors are never disclosed, but it is known that the person had died of a stroke.

Kleinloog’s trip was a race against time: he and his team had just four hours to retrieve the heart and lungs, fly back to Durban and get Beckbessinger’s blood flowing through them.

While Kleinloog was retrieving them, Beckbessinger was being prepared for the transplant. The operation took eight hours and the organs were a perfect fit.

Afterwards Beckbessinger’s mother could not believe what she was seeing.

“Tina always had a blue tinge, but this time, her lips and nails were pink. She had rosy cheeks and looked absolutely beautiful. And she was already sitting up and brushing her hair. It was such a magical moment,” she said.

Beckbessinger is now back home. “My life will be normal for the first time ever,” she said on Wednesday.

“I can now take a deep breath and feel the air reach the bottom of my lungs. For the first time, I have enough oxygen. It is weird because I have never had that before.”

Beckbessinger cannot believe how strong she is and says she even has a strong voice now.

“It’s crazy,” she laughed. “I am feeling so good, so positive. It’s incredible. It’s a new life.”

Beckbessinger plans to raise awareness about organ donation and said she was grateful to the donor’s family for saving her life.

“It is amazing that there are people who are thinking about others even if they are in a terrible situation themselves,” she said.

Two of her own heart valves were salvaged during the operation to save another patient’s life and Kleinloog said it was normal to save what they could for others during transplants.

Beckbessinger now plans to take part in the World Transplant Games in Durban in 2013, though she doesn’t know yet what sport she’ll do. “There is no stopping me now.”

Six other patients are also waiting for heart/lung transplants. - Daily News

*** Details about the Organ Donor Foundation are available at www.odf.org.za.

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