Liver recipient marks 30 years since transplant

By John Lewis

New Zealand's first liver transplant recipient, Tracy Holmes has returned to Dunedin to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her life-saving transplant. Photo / Gregor Richardson, ODT
New Zealand's first liver transplant recipient, Tracy Holmes has returned to Dunedin to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her life-saving transplant. Photo / Gregor Richardson, ODT

When Tracy Holmes was diagnosed with alpha 1 antitrypsin deficiency liver disease, doctors told her parents she would not live much past her second birthday.

She was only 15 months old, and it was the 1970s, a time when liver transplants were not done in New Zealand.

"My parents were only given one sheet of paper with information about the disease, so they didn't really know what was going to happen."

Amazingly, she lived past her second, third and fourth birthdays, but as the years went on, she got sicker and sicker.She was 10 years old when doctors said she had to have a liver transplant or she would die.

"They had only just started doing them on children in the United Kingdom, so it was still very ground-breaking, pioneering days of liver transplants on children."

Miss Holmes (41) said it was a frightening time for her.

News of her plight spread from her home town of Otautau, right across Southland and Otago, and residents raised enough money for her to travel to the United Kingdom for a liver transplant.

She received it in Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, England, in 1986, when she was just 10, effectively making her New Zealand's first liver transplant recipient.

But just three weeks after her return to New Zealand, her body began to reject it.

"I was put into Dunedin Hospital and they tried all they could to get the liver working again, but they couldn't.

"So they sent me back to the United Kingdom where I had the liver transplant, and the doctors there also tried to get the liver going again, but they couldn't save it, either.

"It was quite terrifying. Once the liver stops, that's it.

"Without it, my life expectancy was very short. They only gave me a couple of weeks."

Miss Holmes was put on a waiting list for another liver transplant, and one became available within 24 hours.

"I was very, very lucky."

Thirty years later, that liver is still "chugging along", she said.

"It's pretty cool, eh?

"I'm living a very normal life. I'm making the most of what is a very special gift. There are not many gifts that people would cherish as much as this one."

Miss Holmes remains eternally grateful to the family of the person who donated the liver, and all the people in Otago and Southland who helped raise funds for her trips to the United Kingdom for the surgeries.

"To all the people of New Zealand, please, please, please tell your family that you want to donate your organs, because we have a very bad donor rate in New Zealand.

"You can tick your licence to say that you want to be a donor, but your family can veto that. So it's important to tell your family if you want to donate your organs."

Miss Holmes now works for Southern Cross Healthcare as a business improvement specialist, in Hamilton.

"It's ironic, but in a way I'm helping sick people to get better."

She will celebrate the 30th anniversary of her transplant tonight with friends and family at the Green Island Rugby Clubrooms.

"I grew up in Southland, but most of my childhood life was spent here in Dunedin Hospital.

"So I thought Dunedin was the best place to celebrate, because it was Dunedin Hospital and the amazing people there that kept me alive, long enough to go to the UK for my transplant."

- Otago Daily Times

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