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Four hours to go
and the little girl’s
heart transplant
was missing
only one thing…

Heart
Laura

a
for

BY ROBERT KIENER

It is just past midnight in central London. In a
small fourth-floor guest flat, directly across the road
from Great Ormond Street Hospital, Andrew and
Julia Whitworth are sleeping fitfully. A full midsummer moon shines softly through the couple’s lacecurtained windows. Suddenly, Julia is jolted awake
by her mobile phone.
“Is this Julia Whitworth?”
“Yes, it is.”
“We have a heart.” Julia’s hand tightens around the
PHOTOGRAPHED BY CRAIG STENNETT

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phone as she hears the voice of the hospital’s transplant coordinator. “We have
a heart for Laura.”

Feisty. A fighter. From the minute
she was born Laura Whitworth was a
handful. Take away her baby bottle before she had finished and she’d let out
an indignant cry. If she was lonely she’d
howl until picked up. By her first birthday it was clear to Andy and Julia Whitworth that their beautiful green-eyed
daughter was, as Andy often said, “one
tough little cookie”.
So both were a bit surprised when
she wasn’t able to fight off an infection
that kept her coughing, then wheezing,
through the night when she was just 14
months old. At first their doctor said it
was a cold. But the coughing got worse.
Andy and Julia would take turns holding Laura at night as coughing fits
racked her tiny body. Another doctor
diagnosed gastroenteritis. But Andy, a
no-nonsense Yorkshire builder, was convinced it was something more serious.
Finally doctors ordered a chest X-ray.
“I’m afraid Laura has a problem with
her heart,” a cardiologist told them.
Andy squeezed Julia’s hand so tight she
winced as the doctor said, “It’s dilated
cardiomyopathy.” This condition caused
the heart to become enlarged and was
often irreversible, he told them. Laura’s
heart could get weaker and weaker.
Early last year when she was two and
a half, Laura was already gulping 60
breaths a minute—with her heart unable to pump properly, her lungs filled
with fluid, leaving her gasping for air.
“She’s like a little steam engine,” Andy
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told Julia as he carried her upstairs one
night. She was so weak she couldn’t
walk. She weighed only 22 pounds; she
was skin and bones. Their “little fighter”
was losing her battle for life.
In April doctors placed Laura on the
heart transplant list. But could the toddler survive until a heart was available?
While there was still time, Andy and
Julia decided to take Laura and her baby
sister Lucy to Blackpool, where Laura
had loved riding the donkeys. But Laura
was so weak she could barely get out
of her stroller.
As they drove home, they were lost
in their own thoughts. Then Julia suddenly said: “What if she leaves us?
Should we scatter her ashes in the sea
off Blackpool?” Andy, his eyes filling
with tears, couldn’t answer.

The early morning call in the hospital flat has woken Andy too.
“Is it a heart?” he asks Julia.
She nods. “My God,” he says, and
wraps his wife in his arms. For three
weeks the tiny flat has been their home
as they have waited for news of a donor
heart. Across the street in the hospital,
Laura lies tethered to a Berlin Heart,
an external mechanical device that
helps her damaged heart pump blood
throughout her body.
The cardiac critical care unit is dominated by the persistent “thock thock
thock” of the air-driven, computerised
heart pump connected by clear plastic
tubes to Laura’s chest. The pump has
saved Laura’s life; it has given her the
time to wait for a donor heart. She has
been eating and putting on weight; the
READER’S DIGEST . MAY ’08

colour has returned to her cheeks.
Best of all, she’s feisty again, quick to
argue with a nurse or her parents if she
doesn’t get her way.
Andy and Laura look down at her,
yearning to pick her up and hug her.
Holding back her tears, Julia leans close
and says softly: “Laurie, you’re going to
get your new heart today.”

In her office, transplant coordinator
Lorraine Priestley-Barnham phones
doctors, technicians and specialist

Julia tucks Laura’s “nu nu”, her tiny
blue security blanket festooned with
white hearts, underneath her. I want
that to be the first thing she sees when
she comes out of surgery, she thinks.
Laura cries when a doctor slips a
needle into her and takes a blood sample. “Don’t worry, Laurie,” says her
mother with a nervous smile. “Mummy
will bash him if he does that again.”
Lorraine’s phone rings with the news
that the heart is “airborne” and should
arrive at London’s Stansted airport in

The donor heart must
be transplanted within

fıvehours

nurses who are on standby. Timing
is crucial. A donor heart begins deteriorating the minute it is removed
from a body. To gain precious time,
surgeons will have to remove Laura’s
heart even before the new one arrives.
Lorraine alerts a transport team to
be ready to collect the organ and fly it
to London.
Lorraine’s phone rings just after
5.30am. A surgeon at the donor hospital tells her, “Cross clamp is in place
and the heart looks good.” Within minutes, the heart is immersed in a sterile
solution, sealed in a plastic bag and set
into a “cooler” chest filled with ice for
its flight to London. Even so it must be
used within five hours to be viable. The
transplant clock is ticking.
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20 minutes. Lorraine ticks off another
entry on her checklist.

Outside a small office just off the
runway at the airport Simon Moore, a
driver with East London’s M&L Ambulance Service, waits in his response car.
A dispatcher rings his mobile phone:
“The plane is ten miles out.”
Fifteen minutes later a twin-engine
plane lands and taxis to a stop less than
100 feet from where Moore is waiting.
Steps are lowered and a crew member
climbs down with a blue-and-white
sealed cooler chest. Moore carefully
places it in the boot of his response car
and double-straps it down. He notes
the number on the plastic security tag
that seals the container and calls in to
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‘Can you take me to the
nearest police station?
I’ve got a heart in here’

Ambulance driver
Simon Moore
feared he wouldn’t
get the heart to the
hospital on time

Starved of blood inside the cooler,
the heart’s delicate cells are already beginning to die. If too many do not survive the journey, the heart will not be
able to be live again inside Laura.

Just before 7am, Dutch-born surgeon Carin van Doorn reviews the
daunting operation with Julia and Andy.
As Laura has had the Berlin Heart attached to her own heart, the procedure
will be even more complex than a tra126

ditional heart transplant. After opening Laura’s chest, van Doorn will hook
Laura up to a heart–lung machine. “Next
we will remove the Berlin Heart and
Laura’s damaged heart and then, when
the donor heart arrives, we’ll transplant
it into Laura.”
Andy and Julia help push Laura
down the hallway and into the lift to
the anaesthetic room. Before the anaesthetist slips a strawberry-flavoured
gas mask over Laura’s mouth and nose,
Julia bends over and whispers, “Mummy
and Daddy will be right here; waiting for you.” As she turns to walk out
of the room Julia sobs. Andy puts a
gentle arm round her.
READER’S DIGEST . MAY ’08

Wearing his yellow striped “emer-

drivers, alerted by his lights
and siren, are moving out
of Simon Moore’s way. He’s
now about 20 minutes
from the hospital. Then, as
he zips down Forest Road
in Walthamstow, a car pulls
out from a side street
directly in front of him.
“No!” shouts Moore as
he swerves to the right to
avoid the car. He hears
two loud bangs as his car
smashes into a six-inchhigh central reservation.
He leaps out and surveys the damage;
both right-side tyres have burst. His car
is undrivable.

gency” vest, Simon Moore boldly walks
into oncoming traffic and points firmly
at the driver of the white, four-door 1993
Volvo saloon that is approaching him.
Margaret Rollinson, a local government employee on her way to work,
thinks: A police safety check! Why me?
Must be because of my old car. She steps
on the brake and pulls over.
Moore leans through the driver’s window. “Can you do me a favour? I’ve had
an accident. Can you take me to the
nearest police station?” He’s trying to
sound professional and trustworthy but
his stomach is in knots. Say yes! he
thinks as he looks at the woman.
Margaret has her doubts—but nods.
As a precaution she says, “Just let me
phone work and tell them I’ll be late.”
While she dials, Moore fetches the
heavy cooler and puts it on the back
seat. As he climbs in he adds, “I don’t
want to panic you but I’ve got a heart in
there. We need to get to the nearest
police station as fast as possible.”
Margaret is speechless. She tells herself, Calm down. Concentrate. Inside its
cooler, the heart deteriorates.

As her operating team watches, Carin

PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY MARSDEN

his dispatcher: “Got it. I am mobile.”
He flips on the car’s flashing blue lights
and its two-toned siren—“blues and
twos”—and heads for central London.

Most morning rush-hour

van Doorn, dressed in blue scrubs,
switches on the sternal saw, a jigsawlike instrument, and “cracks” open
Laura’s tiny breastbone; then she inserts retractors to open the ribcage and
expose the interior of Laura’s chest.
After connecting Laura to a heart–
lung machine, van Doorn examines the
toddler’s heart. It looks very sick, the
surgeon notes—the walls are thin. Then
she begins to clamp it off and disconnect
it from the tubes of the Berlin Heart.
READER’S DIGEST . rdmag.co.uk

With the heart–lung machine breathing for Laura and circulating her blood,
Carin van Doorn clamps off Laura’s
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heart. “Let’s paralyse it now,” she says
and an assistant surgeon injects a chemical into the heart so van Doorn can
work on it. It stops.
Slowly, precisely, she severs the
heart’s major blood vessels and leaves
a portion of the left atrium in place. The
donor heart will be grafted on to this.

In Walthamstow, Margaret Rollinson
waits for a break in the dense traffic so
she can pull back on to the road. Simon
Moore feels beads of sweat breaking on
his brow. Even with “blues and twos”
they’re still 20 minutes from Great
Ormond Street. What chance does he
have of making it on time with an unmarked car and no siren?
As if in answer, the traffic lights ahead
of them turn red.
In the operating theatre van Doorn
pauses as an assistant suctions blood
from Laura’s chest cavity, “OK,” she
says, “that looks good.” She finishes cutting away most of Laura’s heart, then
grips it with the forceps, pulls it away
from the chest and places it in a stainless steel kidney dish. It’s a critical moment. As she had explained to Andy
and Julia, the transplant team is now at
“the point of no return”.
The medical team has no idea that
the heart has been in a traffic accident.
Although the light is turning red Margaret Rollinson sees a small gap coming
up in the cross-traffic. Now! She glances
repeatedly to both sides and decides to
take a chance. Holding her breath, she
accelerates into the oncoming traffic.
128

Once through she speeds away. She sees
the police station ahead and tells Moore,
“It’s not much further!”
As Margaret pulls up at Walthamstow Police Station, Moore jumps out
with the cooler, bounds up the steps
and announces to the receptionist: “I
have a heart in here and need a police
car to drive me to Great Ormond Street
Hospital. Now! Please!” Three minutes
later he hears a police siren screaming
down Forest Road towards him.
As Simon is whisked away, Margaret
pulls into a lay-by just past the police
station. Once her heart stops racing she
dials her husband, Colin. “You will never
believe what just happened.”

With their lights flashing and sirens
wailing, Moore, Police Sergeant Dean
Reid and Inspector Pipper Mills make
headway through the traffic. Reid, a
qualified “response driver”, and 12-year
veteran, weaves in and out of traffic as
Moore calls out directions from his satnav. “Take a right at the next light,” says
Moore. “Then straight on for three
blocks.” His left arm cradling the cooler
in the back seat Moore calls in to his
dispatcher, “We’re five minutes from
Great Ormond Street Hospital.”
In their flat across from the hospital,
Andy Whitworth hears sirens, rushes
to the window and sees a police car
speeding down Great Ormond Street.
“It could be Laura’s heart!” he tells Julia.
In the hospital lobby the transplant coordinator is already waiting and
leads Moore and Reid to the first floor
lift. “Come on!” Simon shouts as the
READER’S DIGEST . MAY ’08

lift doors refuse to open. “Come on!”
They give up on the lift and rush up
the stairs with the cooler. As he hands
it over in the operating theatre, Moore
nearly collapses from exhaustion. It will
be hours before he knows if his race has
been successful.
In the theatre Carin van Doorn gently lifts the heart in its plastic bag from
the chipped ice pack. She examines it
and wraps it in white cotton swabs to
keep it cool. Then she begins trimming
it to fit Laura’s chest, readying it for suturing to Laura’s major blood vessels.
Unable to relax in the flat, Andy and
Julia return to the hospital, have a coffee and try to watch television in the
waiting room. An hour drags past. They
buy Laura a “Get Well Soon” balloon
from the gift shop. Julia nervously flicks
through a magazine.
Van Doorn and her team now have
the donor heart sewn tightly in place.
Next they will remove the clamps and
let Laura’s new heart fill with blood. If
it has not been out of a body for too
long, it should kick into life on its own.
Van Doorn, peering through threepower magnifying glasses, removes a
stainless steel clamp from the aorta.
Rich blood flows into Laura’s new heart
and the team waits expectantly. Nothing happens. As a last resort, the tiny

organ may need to be shocked into life.
But then, almost imperceptibly, the
heart starts to beat. The cells, starved of
nourishment for hours, start to revive as
blood courses over, through and around
them. “Pop…pop…pop”, the cardiac
monitor echoes each beat. Van Doorn
removes the clamps from the other
blood vessels and more blood rushes
in. Laura’s heart begins beating even
more strongly—just as it will 100,000
times each day for the rest of her life.

Two days after the operation Andy
and Julia visited Laura and began kidding her, “Laurie, where’s that Berlin
Heart pump you’ve been using?” She
looked her mother straight in the eye
and announced loudly, “It’s gone. I don’t
need it any more!”
“Why not?” asked Andy.
“I’ve got a new heart,” she replied.
“And it’s better!”
Her parents now describe Laura as
“the picture of health”. She’s put on weight
and suffered no complications from her
surgery. The family has met and thanked
many of the people responsible for getting the organ to Great Ormond Street
in time. They’ve also sent a thank you
letter to the family who so generously
donated Laura’s new heart.

Three hundred and ninety-five Croatians painted
themselves blue to beat the world “most Smurfs in one
place” record—only to discover that the mark was 450.
The group, who assembled in a park in Komin, had read
on the Internet that the record was 291. They learned the
truth when they phoned to register their achievement.
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