We’re so grateful for gift of life’

Christmas 2005 was a terrible day for the family of Valerie McNeaney, a mother of four from Eaton Socon. She was diagnosed with the same fatal heart disease which had killed her brother, sister and mother. But this Christmas and new year was very differen

Christmas 2005 was a terrible day for the family of Valerie McNeaney, a mother of four from Eaton Socon. She was diagnosed with the same fatal heart disease which had killed her brother, sister and mother. But this Christmas and new year was very different. She had a new heart and a new life. She and her family spoke to ANGELA SINGER.

THE day that Valerie McNeaney was told she had the same fatal heart disease that had caused the early deaths of her brother, sister and mother, she was also told that she had only six months to live.

That was Christmas day 2005.

She was also warned that there was only a slim chance of finding a suitable heart. Valerie, 50, has a rare blood type, plus she has antibodies in her that could reject a donated heart unless the donor had the same antibodies in their body that she does.

Yet the mother of four survived for a year and the family never gave up hope that a suitable heart would be found.

After waiting for 11 months, Valerie and her husband Peter were woken at 1.30am by a telephone call from Papworth Hospital. There was a heart available and "a slight chance" that it might be suitable.

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By this time Valerie, who had spent her life cycling, swimming, eating healthily and generally keeping fit, was barely able to walk. She could no longer walk her eight-year-old daughter, Molly, to school. Valerie's three other children are Liam, 29, Jessie, 27, and Rhiannon, 13.

Valerie said: "It was early on a Saturday morning. I got a call saying: 'Val, there's a slim chance that we might have a match. You can come down if want to but I don't want to build your hopes up."

Her husband, Peter, 57, told The Hunts Post: "They said there was only a slight chance but it wouldn't prejudice anything if we didn't go - they gave us the option.

"I said let's go - but while saying that, deep inside, I thought let's leave it this time and when I heard it was a match, a part of me thought let's go home. This is something you want but are frightened of it at the same time. I thought this is what we have waited all this time for, but there is also this terrible fear."

After arriving at the hospital, they waited for five hours while tests were carried out. Then the transplant co-ordinator at Papworth Hospital, Anne Thompson, told the couple: "You are not going to believe this - the heart is a perfect match. It's a miracle!"

Valerie said: "When I came round from the operation, Rhiannon was on one side of the bed and Molly was on the other, and each of them was holding one of my hands. Pete was in the room and I thought it's all over, I've had the operation."

Valerie came out of hospital on December 7 in time for Christmas. The first thing she did when she got home was to brush Molly's hair. "It was the only thing I was able to do with her in the end," she said. "I could do puzzles and I could brush her hair, that was all."

Valerie will have to take immunosuppressants for the rest of her life and at first suffered the side effects of sickness and headaches, but these are getting less severe.

Her condition, having an enlarged heart, also created fluid retention in her lungs. It was diagnosed at a late stage after she became more and more breathless and started fainting.

The heart given to her was from a man in his 30s. The couple do not know how he died or where he was from.

Peter said: "We both cried when we heard that, because we thought about his family. We don't know whether he had any children. He has given us so much but his family have lost him and he has lost his life."

Valerie said: "I understand we can write to the family of the donor. I would like to say how grateful I am and don't worry, I will look after his heart and keep as fit and well as possible."

Peter, a former addiction therapist at Littlehey Prison, had to give up work to look after his family.

To make matters even more desperate, just 10 weeks before his wife's heart transplant, he had surgery to remove tumours from his kidneys.

The couple were both so ill during last year that they made their wills and Valerie prepared videos of herself and other mementoes to leave their children.

She also made a quilt for Molly, sewn at the Arthur Rank Hospice in Cambridge where she was a day patient.

Valerie paid tribute to the medical team at Papworth: "The whole team are marvellous. They are like angels on earth. Papworth is a magic place. They are all so caring and so good at explaining everything to you. They don't have airs and graces. They don't give themselves self-importance because they are consultants."

Now she is looking forward to the future she and her family feared she would never see. It will be months before she has made a full recovery but she says: "I am so happy. I am looking forward to all of us being able to go walking and cycling as a family around Grafham Water and going dancing - and being able to walk Molly to school again, just leading a healthy, normal life."

INFORMATION: To find out more about becoming an organ donor, visit www.uktransplant.org.uk or call 0845 6060400.