Heart Hospital, ITV1 Monday 10 October at 10.35pm
Heart Hospital, a one-hour documentary for ITV1’s new ‘Exposure’ strand, investigates the worsening crisis in the availability of donor hearts in Britain.
With intimate access to the heart transplant team at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital – one of the largest transplant centres in Europe – this revealing film follows three patients and their families as they find themselves on the long and uncertain road towards a life-saving operation, and provides a rare opportunity to witness complex heart transplant surgery.
The stories of these three men reveal the human impact of the critical shortage of donor hearts. As leading heart surgeon Professor Robert Bonser says: “Living under that shadow of uncertainty is a haunting experience”.
Professor Bonser has led the heart transplant service at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for 21 years, During his career, he’s performed more than fifteen thousand heart operations, including 250 heart transplants. He has seen the number of transplants carried out in the UK drop by two thirds to less than 100 each year.
He says in the film: “Over the years we have developed therapies that could help many more patients with advanced heart failure. The tragedy is we don’t have enough donor hearts to treat everybody and to fully utilise all these possibilities.
“We have patients in critical care who are dying in front of our eyes as we are urgently waiting for a heart.”
The problem is set to escalate. Almost a million people in the UK have heart failure and a similar number have damaged hearts but don’t yet know it. With the obesity epidemic and increased life expectancy, the number is likely to rise in coming years.
Meanwhile, more advanced emergency medicine and improved road safety mean fewer young people are dying and becoming donors. Older donor hearts are more often found to be unsuitable, and half of the hearts available to the transplant team at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital have to be rejected because they are not safe to use.
At the age of 25, Rhys Llewellyn from Aberdare is facing up to the fact that his congenital heart condition has deteriorated and a heart transplant is now his only option. His youthful optimism shines despite his worsening symptoms, but as a string of serious complications begin to take their toll, he admits, “It’s never easy to heart that your heart is in a mess, no matter how many times I have heard it. I kidded myself that I was feeling better and that things would improve. But it’s better to know.
“I hope I’m suitable for a transplant. if my body is not suitable there’s nothing I can do. I don’t want to think about death, but even if your head sometimes forgets, your body doesn’t.”
The film follows Rhys as he undergoes the series of vital tests to determine whether he can be put on the waiting list for a transplant.
Bill Proctor, 62 from Stoke, has suffered heart problems for 15 years, with no known cause. He is dependent on intravenous drips to induce his heart to beat. Without a transplant, he will die within weeks. During his unpredictable journey on the waiting list, he veers between hope, fear and sadness: “It’s very strange waiting for a heart. You’re thinking all the time. Waiting and wondering – who’s the poor unfortunate that’s got to pass away to make me live.”
The film follows Bill as he eventually has transplant surgery, and on the road to recovery.
Fit and healthy father of four Andy Dutson from Hereford recently suffered a massive heart attack of unknown cause. Two thirds of his heart was left scarred and his other organs began to shut down but he cannot remember his ordeal. As he slowly gets to grips with the shock of potentially needing a new heart, his wife Bev adjusts to the dramatic change to their family’s life together: “He just wasn’t anything like the person that I knew and lived with – that’s the hardest bit because you don’t know if you’re going to get him back.”
While surgical advances and more sophisticated anti-rejection drugs have expanded the incredible potential of heart transplantation, can doctors find the organs to save their patients’ lives in time?
Heart Hospital is produced and directed by Suzie Samant for Special Edition Films.