• Kate Phillips was born with congenital heart disease and diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension not long after she was born. (Supplied)
Brisbane local, Kate Phillips may be only 31 but she's already experienced heart failure and looked death straight in the face. Three years after undergoing a heart and double-lung transplant, she tells SBS how sheer determination led her to win 11 medals at the 2016 Australian Transplant Games.
By
Kate Phillips, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

7 Oct 2016 - 2:09 PM  UPDATED 11 Oct 2016 - 10:52 AM

I was born with congenital heart disease. I had high blood pressure in my pulmonary arteries which put pressure on the right hand side of my heart. Then at 10 months old, I had open-heart surgery to correct the hole in my heart that I was born with.

I was extremely lucky though. I went through my whole childhood without really noticing anything different about my health. I was closely monitored and it wasn’t until I was a teenager that things started to deteriorate. I started to get sick.

I got one type of glandular virus when I was 16 and it went to my heart. It weakened my heart muscles and that meant the pulmonary pressure started to increase. Looking back now, I can see that the deterioration of my heart had started to take its toll.

I had a cardiac arrest. It was in front of my mum and a lot of medical people. I was lucky to be in the hospital when it happened. I was 24 at the time.

At age 23, I presented to hospital with a pulmonary crisis. I was overloaded with fluid. My lips were blue. I struggled to walk between A and B and everything was hard. Even my local GP who I’d been seeing for years didn’t know what was going on.

As luck would have it, I had an outpatient appointment with some specialists the next day. They took one look at me and hooked me up to every IV you could imagine. I started drug therapy. Soon, I was able to leave hospital. But I had a whole bag of medication I had to take every day.

Some time later, I was at another outpatient appointment. I had to do a ‘six minute walk test’, which doctors want you to do so they can check to see how you are functioning. I had a cardiac arrest. It was in front of my mum and a lot of medical people. I was lucky to be in the hospital when it happened. I was 24 at the time.

I managed to stay away from needing a transplant up until the point when I passed out again and this time, I was by myself.  My ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) didn’t go off. I made it to the bathroom and felt quite lightheaded. I steadied myself against the washing machine but fell and hit my head on the way down. As soon as I got to that point in my health, I knew I needed a transplant.

 

A life-saving operation

At age 27, I got the transplant. I like to think that I was extremely fortunate.

I was hospitalised after slipping into heart failure. The doctors then upped me to the national emergency register for a heart and double lung transplant. And basically, I woke up in hospital one night, three and half months later, with a new heart and lungs.

Around five days after the operation, I was up and walking around through ICU with support.

That’s the best thing you can do for transplanted lungs- to start getting air through them again.

But as soon as I took those first few steps, I was determined. I was determined to be fitter and stronger than I have ever been before. It was like I’d been waiting my whole life to get fit and active. So I set my sights on becoming a triathlete.

But as soon as I took those first few steps, I was determined. I was determined to be fitter and stronger than I have ever been before. It was like I’d been waiting my whole life to get fit and active.

I was told by the doctors that I shouldn't push myself too much after the transplant. But becoming a triathlete was the one thing that drove me: knowing that I could get out there and do it.

So first, I worked at building my strength and confidence. Two months after the transplant, I entered a five kilometre run, the Bridge to Brisbane event. I walked it. It was the first time I’d ever been involved in something like that and I just loved it.

I kept setting my goals higher and higher and eventually, I worked my way up to join a triathlon club last year.

It’s been three years since that transplant. And this year, I competed in my second Australian Transplant Games at the International Regatta Centre in Sydney.

I took home around 11 medals in total. I got a silver medal in the triathlon event; a gold medal in the five kilometre run; two gold, two bronze and one silver in the pool (and another gold for the relay); two gold for cycling; and I was in the volleyball which I entered into just for fun - we won silver.

But the difference with the transplant games is that the competitors aren’t really participating because they want to get medals. Being involved is really about enjoying our lives.

I guess that's because transplant recipients realise they are the luckiest people alive: not because they have received an amazing second chance at life in their darkest hour but because they know what it’s like to literally be on their death-bed and be given their life back when they have almost lost all hope.

I guess that’s because transplant recipients realise they are the luckiest people alive...because they know what it’s like to literally be on their death-bed and be given their life back when they have almost lost all hope.

We are very special. We look on the positive side of everything. And that’s something you don’t do unless you’ve done the hard yards first.

These days, I feel excellent. I still get monitored every three months at Prince Charles Hospital, Brisbane. I still am discovering things that I can do now that I couldn’t do before... Whether it be the ability to sleep flat, sing through a song without taking a break or being able to walk and talk at the same time, my life has dramatically improved.

Emotionally, I am really happy. The happiest I’ve been in a while. I’m also a little tired. But I think that’s just because I’ve had a big week of cheering everyone else on at the games.

 

Last month, Phillips participated in the Australian Transplant Games: an event held every two years for organ recipients and their families. The games aim to inspire the public to consider organ and tissue donation and encourage recipients to rehabilitate following their transplant and keep fit and healthy.

The Brisbane local plans to join other transplant recipient athletes from over 70 countries to participate in the 2017 World Transplant Games in Malaga, Spain from 25 June –2 July. She has also applied to be an Australian 'Fit for Life' Ambassador in the games. Applications are currently being considered.