Having lived almost her entire life with a heart condition, Christchurch-based Sue Kobar nearly cried when her heart surgeon told her that - for the first time - her heart sounded normal.
Sue was diagnosed with a heart murmur at four years of age and had annual check-ups without incident until the age of 46.
"I always knew growing up that my aortic valve would need to be replaced at some stage. At annual checkups I was told that everything was ok and to come back next year. I didn't really think about my heart condition from one appointment to the next, but I always knew that eventually my valve would wear out."
And when that time came - in the year 2000 when Sue was 46 - there was no warning.
In quick succession, Sue fell down the stairs in her Hawaii home twice.
On the last fall, she hurt her knee and when she visited her doctor he informed her that she may have fainted, not fallen. He performed an ECG and then discussed the results with her cardiologist. Further tests showed her aortic valve had 84% restriction, leaving Sue with an extremely high risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
"At that point everything changed for me until I could have heart surgery. Fortunately I was referred to a very good heart surgeon, who shared with me the various options. I always thought I'd receive a mechanical or a pig's valve and didn't know there was any other choice. Although I knew about organ donation, this was really my first real awareness of tissue donation."
A valve was sourced through US tissue procurement and storage company, Cryolife, and Sue underwent a very successful tissue transplant which gave her a normal sounding heart for the first time.
"I was so relieved when the surgery was over and initially didn't know that I had received a human valve. Because of the tissue transplant I don't have to take anticoagulant drugs which would be necessary if I had received a mechanical valve. My only medication is to keep my blood pressure low. For me it is a quality of life issue - my life is very good now."
"The hardest thing in the whole process was when I rang Cryolife and found out my donor was an 18 year old girl from Tennessee. My son was 19 at the time and I hadn't thought about my donor being someone so young. I really felt sad for her family and yet at the same time very thankful that they thought about helping others under such tragic circumstances."
"It's very hard to put into words how grateful I am to my donor family. I know that I have received a very precious gift and will never take that for granted. My health is excellent today because a family agreed to support organ and tissue donation."
Sue says she is also amazed at how much the human body can help others.
"Up to 25 people could receive medical benefit if one person donates all their organs and tissues. Most people don't realise that the eyes, bone, skin, cartilage, tendons, veins and heart valves are all able to be transplanted. We usually only hear about organ donation and I really want to promote tissue donation as well."
Sue says she encourages anyone who wants to be a donor to talk to their families about their wishes.
"It's not really enough just to note it on your driver's licence - your family needs to know and understand your wishes so they can be carried out. I really encourage people to have that conversation ahead of time. Because I received a human valve my health is so much better. To me there isn't any greater gift and words can't truly express how grateful I am to my donor family."
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