Home Heart Transplant Diving back in: Ocean swimmer back in the water a year after heart transplant

Diving back in: Ocean swimmer back in the water a year after heart transplant

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When Wayne Annan gathered his family for his 62nd birthday in September last year, he thought it would be his last.

But after being the recipient of the ultimate gift of life - a heart transplant - the 63-year-old is living life to the full and preparing for an ocean race swim.

About three and a half years ago the Aucklander suffered his first heart attack on St Heliers Beach, after a swim.

Annan was eventually put on the heart donor wait list in March 2017, when doctors realised his heart was rapidly deteriorating. By September, his confidence of a suitable donor cropping up was fading.

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"I got my family together and had my 'last birthday' with them," Annan said.

"I wasn't going to survive to my next birthday if I didn't get a transplant. It was just the reality of it."

A little more than a year later, Annan is gearing up for a 2.4km ocean swimming event - his first since the heart transplant that saved his life.

He will be taking part in the Around the Island Swim next Sunday, a race around Watchman's Island hosted by the Auckland Central Masters Harbour Swims group.

Speaking to the Herald on Sunday, Annan said he was ready for the challenge of the swim; despite being on a raft of medication and facing a higher risk of infection than most.

This rules some food out of his diet, and swimming in pools or in the ocean following periods of heavy rain is not an option.

Annan discovered this the hard way - he wound up in hospital back in March after contracting an infection from an indoor pool.

He bears a scar down his sternum, marking where the new heart was put in.

But the scar was fading, he said, and he was learning to adjust to a "new normal".

According to his doctors, Annan was lucky to have even survived the heart attack at St Heliers in April 2015 while preparing to take part in the 2015 harbour swim.

And if someone had warned him previously that he was at risk, he would have told them to "bugger off", he says with a laugh.

"That happens to other people ... it doesn't happen to people like me."

"I came out of the water, had a shower, then had a heart attack," he recalled.

"55 minutes later I had a stent in me."

A part of Wayne Annan's heart was starved of blood following his heart attack, and died. Photo / Dean Purcell
A part of Wayne Annan's heart was starved of blood following his heart attack, and died. Photo / Dean Purcell

For more than a year after the incident Annan wrongly thought he was getting better.

A part of his heart had been starved of blood when the attack happened - and had subsequently died.

In June 2017 he had to give up work and was put on a drug that had him in and out of hospital every other day.

For a guy who had an Ironman, a Coast to Coast event and countless swimming, cycling and running races under his belt, being so limited physically, was agony.

His wife Pauline and two grown-up kids were incredibly supportive through this process, he said, despite being "obviously terrified" about the whole thing.

"I guess my wife and I found out what the vows you say when you get married mean ... in sickness and health - all of that."

Midway through last year, Annan could feel his other organs starting to fail, too. His kidneys and his liver were shutting down and he described a "dull, fuzzy" feeling taking over his brain.

Prior to his birthday he got the wider family together for what he called a "living wake" - complete with speeches about his life.

"The families all get together for funerals and weddings ... more often funerals than weddings," he said.

"If there was going to be a family get together for mine, I wanted to be there."

Then shortly after his birthday he received the greatest gift of all, a call to say a heart donor match had been found.

Annan struggled for words to describe how it felt, picking up the phone to hear a matching heart had become available.

"It was exciting, it was very scary.

"And it was also tinged with a whole lot of grief, because in order for me to survive, someone had passed away."

In September last year he was on the operating table, and became the 318th New Zealander to receive a heart transplant.

Annan had since written the donor's family a letter, letting them know how much their decision had changed his life.

"It was basically a huge thank you," he said.

"They had given me the opportunity to survive, and to see my grandchildren develop and grow through school.

"And it had obviously saved my family from the same grief they were going through."

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