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25 years of heart transplants in NZ

Sunday 2 Dec 2012 5:18 p.m.

It's 25 years today since the first heart transplant was carried out in New Zealand.

But a leading cardiologist says New Zealand’s poor donor rates mean people are dying while they're waiting for a transplant.

He says it's time Kiwis made organ donation a topic of discussion around the dinner table so others can be given a second chance at life.

When Edwin Telle was 17 years old, he was given just five years to live. Twenty-three years on, he's New Zealand’s longest surviving heart transplant recipient.

“The most precious thing on this planet is the gift of life, and I’ve effectively been given that gift twice by having the heart transplant,” says Mr Telle.

Even now, the average life expectancy following a heart transplant is only 12 years.

But not all recipients are as lucky as Mr Telle.

His good friend, comedian Billy T James, lasted only two years.

“We were both put into hospital within about two days of each other,” says Mr Telle. “We both had a heart transplant within about two days of each other and we just had a hell of a lot of fun.”

And fun is what he'll continue to have.

“People say to me, ‘God, all the stuff you've been through, that's awful. How do you cope?’ My response to them is, ‘how do you wake up in the morning not knowing what I know?’ Because I have lived every single day as if it was my last.”

That is because not only has Mr Telle received a heart transplant, he's had a kidney transplant too, after a side-effect of the medication he's on.

“Basically you're addicted to a drug because you have to take it to survive, and they're not good for you,” says Mr Telle.

More than 250 heart transplants have now been carried out in New Zealand. The first one was performed in Auckland 25 years ago today.

Eleven heart transplants are now carried out in New Zealand every year, but more donors are needed.

“The best way I think…is around the dinner table at night to state to their family that ‘if something were to happen to me, I'd like to be a donor’, because that conversation will be remembered,” says Mr Telle’s cardiologist, Peter Ruygrok.

That will allow more people like Mr Telle be given a second chance at life.

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