By: Eastern Eye Staff
It was a blisteringly cold morning in January 1999, and my wife Anita stood in the atrium of Columbia Hospital in New York and, through the huge glass windows, saw a tiny speck on the horizon grow bigger and bigger.
It was a helicopter and she knew the cargo it was carrying was my new heart.
After a lifetime of health problems, mainly due to a leaky valve in the heart which had been discovered when I was a child, and after months of increasing ill health, culminating in a collapse several weeks previously, my old heart had all but given up.
The transplant, which had been prescribed by doctors for years, was now vital and my life depended on it. At the 11th hour, a new heart had been found. A 20-year-old from the Midwest, who died in a motor vehicle accident and whose identity I will never know, not only gave me a new heart, he gave me a new life.
That was 18 years ago and I am now one of the world’s longest surviving heart transplant patients. I have written a book, From My Heart, to show that there is life beyond the operating table.
I owe it to my donor, to other heart donors and those needing transplants to try and do as much as I can to share my experience and knowledge because, despite the fact that this is now a very well-established procedure, there is still a lot of fear and ignorance surrounding it. It will only start to disappear when people like me talk about it and explain exactly what it was like.
I have met other heart transplant patients and I talk to as many as possible to show them it is possible to make a full recovery, even with some restrictions on lifestyle, and to live a full life.
I am now 67 and in many ways my quality of life is better than when I was in my late 40s, feeling lethargic and constantly prone to infections as my old heart gradually started to break down.
I have met inspirational people who have had a transplant and whose attitude and ambition has been breathtaking. But I have also met people who threw away the opportunities they had been given by adopting a negative and pessimistic attitude.
Heart transplants are major operations and a brutal assault on the body but human beings are remarkably resilient creatures. It’s important to take care of your body and
make the most of a new lease of life, but perhaps the most important thing is a positive attitude.
My operation was complicated by the fact that 18 months earlier, I had needed an operation to mend the leaky valve. The procedure lasted for several hours and my heart stopped several times. Doctors repeatedly applied electric shocks and it took them about half an hour to get me fully back into the land of the living.
For many years after a heart operation there is a lot of scar tissue, which makes it as hard as cement. Dr Mehmet Oz, the world-famous surgeon who carried out the transplant, had just 12 minutes from when my new heart landed at the airfield to get my ailing heart out of my chest before the new one arrived at Columbia.
He described my old heart as being like a marathon runner at the 26th mile. “You probably had a couple of hundred beats left. Anyone as sick as you would have been dead within 24 hours,” he said.
So why did I survive? Dr Oz believes it is because I was not ready to go.
“If your heart has a reason to keep beating, it will,” he explained. Blessed with a loving family and cherished and cared for by Anita, I had everything to live for.
I firmly believe our health is governed by emotional, as much as physical, factors. I had lost my beloved brother Rajiv less than a year earlier, when he was also waiting for a new heart. His loss brought an all-consuming grief to us all and I am sure his death was one of the reasons my own heart finally gave up the ghost and broke.
However, we cannot completely ignore genetic factors. Research from the British Heart Foundation has shown that an estimated 620,000 people in the UK have a faulty gene that puts them at risk of developing coronary heart disease.
It seems that I have a mutation in the titin gene, which has been linked to heart failure and it appears that Rajiv might have had the same thing too.
That has become increasingly important to my family in recent years. My children have all been tested, and in 2014, it emerged that my younger son also has the mutation. This does not mean he will develop heart disease, but he might. He now feels it is a blessing to have found out about his condition and his positivity is an object lesson in how to live your life.
Our family has a long-standing tradition of philanthropy and I wanted to become involved with the institution that had done so much for me. Soon after my surgery, I became heavily involved with Columbia Hospital. I benefited from the research that was done in the past and I wanted to help fund research and treatment that would save people’s lives in the future.
In 2009, I donated to help establish the Sudhir Choudhrie Professorship of Cardiology in Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.
Columbia also has the Amrit Choudhrie Suite for Advanced Cardiac Care, named in honour of my mother, and last autumn, the Choudhrie Foundation Student Lounge opened in the new medical and graduate education building. My sons and I are on an advisory board aiming to keep Columbia as an international centre of excellence as well as serving its local communities.
I feel immense gratitude to the doctors at Columbia who saved my life and to the family of my donor. Their hearts must have been shattered by their loss and yet they rose above their grief to say yes to the procedure that gave me life. My heart, my new heart, swells with a profound emotion at that thought.
Mine is a message of hope. As I said, as I was surrounded by a loving family, cherished by all of them, one thing was clear – if your heart has a reason to keep beating, it will. My hope is that stories like mine can inspire more potential donors.
From My Heart by Sudhir Choudhrie is published by John Blake on Tuesday (Feburary 14). It is available for pre-order from Amazon.
Sudhir Choudhrie is a pioneering and successful entrepreneur who has played an active role in international commerce, diplomacy, philanthropy and politics.