A HUSBAND described how he watched his wife "slowly die" as she fought to get her name on an urgent heart transplant list for surgery at Papworth Hospital. Ese Elizabeth Alabi, a 29-year-old Nigerian mother of three, was considered by doctors at Papworth to be clinically appropriate for a transplant. But they were stopped from carrying out the operation by Government regulations preventing non-EU nationals from being treated on the NHS. Ms Alabi, who had fought a three-year legal battle to try to win the right to an NHS transplant, died in May 2006. Her name was still on a non-urgent heart transplant list and, because of a shortage of hearts, it was unlikely she would have got a transplant. On Friday, in Cambridge, an inquest into her death heard that Ms Alabi was in the country illegally. Her visitor's visa ran out several months before she died, but she had remained in Britain because she had recently given birth and was dying from her heart problem. She has been feeling ill and breathless and was told she was not well enough to fly home. The only option available to save her life was a heart transplant in Britain. Her partner Abiodun Abe, who lives in Essex and has indefinite leave to stay in Britain, told the inquest: "I watched her slowly die before me. I strongly believe she could have been saved. "She could not understand why doctors were more concerned with her immigration status than with saving her life. "Ese was a good Christian, kind, always smiling and wanting to help. She saw her babies on the Sunday before she died but she could only manage to touch their heads." The then Home Secretary John Reid was due to make a decision on the case, but by the time he stepped in, Ms Alabi was too ill to be saved. Lawyers had been challenging the Government rules as well as Papworth Hospital's decision not to put Ms Alabi on the urgent list, and the NHS Blood and Transplant Service Health Authority's decision not to allocate her a new heart. However, the judge adjourned the case while inquiries were made about Ms Alabi's application for exceptional leave to remain in the country. David Lock, from Papworth Hospital, explained to the coroner that, because of the scarcity of hearts, prioritising is extremely difficult "but it has to be done". "Papworth has no option but to follow the rules and clinicians are happy to have a set of rules to abide by," he said. Catriona Norman, from the Department of Health, said Ms Alabi was, at one point, number three on the urgent list. "If a suitable heart had been given then one person would have been moved further down the list, therefore other people may have died," she said. "There is no opportunity for discretion. The rules are applied rigorously. There are no exceptions." Ten to 15 per cent of patients on waiting lists will die before a suitable heart becomes available for transplant. Christopher Rudge, managing director of UK Transplant, added: "There's a chronic shortage of hearts. Each year there are around 125 patients who receive a new heart. "The true need is far greater than these figures show because people are not put on the list if there isn't a reasonable chance of them getting a good life with a new heart." Her consultant said at the time it would have been "irresponsible" to carry out a transplant if she had to return to Nigeria because essential monitoring and aftercare would not be available. David Morris, Cambridge coroner, adjourned the inquest for a fortnight before announcing his verdict. Ms Alabi's family has lodged a claim under the Human Rights Act.