When Jamene Futcher looks at her happy daughter Cherize laughing and smiling, she feels grateful, so thankful to the doctors, the nurses and friends who supported her darling girl during her fight for survival.
But there is another group of unknown people the Auckland mother and daughter will be forever thankful to – a mystery heart donor and their family.
"When I look at Cherize and hear her heart beat, I can't help but think 'wow!'" says Jamene.
Six months ago, Cherize was lying in a hospital bed connected to countless tubes and wires in desperate need of a new heart.
Jamene's vibrant and active daughter became ill last August and didn't appear to be recovering.
"I'd always treated Cherize for asthma, but she'd never been a sick child," tells Jamene. "She would get the occasional cough or hay fever."
But when Jamene saw Cherize's heartbeat pulsating in her neck at a doctor's visit, she was sent to hospital. The little girl was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which means her heart wasn't pumping an adequate supply of blood around her body.
In Cherize's case, her heart muscle cells were enlarged, causing the walls of the heart to thicken, which would lead to cardiac arrest.
"The doctor told us three things could happen – it would get better, stay the same or she will need a heart transplant," recalls Jamene.
But Cherize's condition began to go downhill, which saw her given a feeding tube and sedated.
"We thought she'd get better, then we were told she had to be put on the transplant list for New Zealand and East Australia," says Jamene.
"It could happen in two days or two weeks, they said. She was in the intensive care unit and put on oxygen. Her father Jacques stayed with her during the nights, he was very strong."
Then in September the call they had been waiting for arrived. A heart was available and the family had only hours to get to Starship Children's Hospital.
"I can't even remember how we got there – it's a blur," tells Jamene. "You have to get there fast because you normally only have six hours from when the heart is donated to when it's put in the recipient."
As the donor was on life support and Cherize was so unwell, the heart transplant was performed the following morning.
"We kissed her goodbye before the surgery, which was the hardest thing, then just as she went through the doors and into the operating theatre, her heart stopped. They had to do CPR for about 15 minutes and she was put on the bypass machine."
Jamene recalls her "anxiety was through the roof", but one thing got her through. "I'm a Christian, so with prayer and faith, I kept believing that she was going to get better. Even when her heart stopped, I saw that as God's timing being perfect – she was ready for her new heart."
After seven hours in theatre, the operation was a success and the following morning, Jamene discovered Cherize sitting up in bed eating an ice block.
"The heart didn't need any help when they put the new one in," Jamene beams.
And without skipping a beat, Cherize pipes up matter-of-factly, "My heart feels better than it did before. I have a scar down my chest. When I look at it, I think of it as bravery. I spent my ninth birthday in hospital and I got two cakes!"
Although Cherize is now free to play netball and be her usual active self, she still has to return for biopsies every month. "I like those now because I get to sleep," she giggles. "But I'm always late for my biopsies because I'm catching up with the nurses!"
The family have all had their hearts tested, with Cherize's brother Juan (8) also diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which is manageable. Jamene is still waiting for her results.
Jamene says they may never know who gave their family the ultimate gift, but points out they are firm supporters of organ donation, which can save "up to five lives" at a time.
"I often think of that family," admits Jamene. "That's the mother of a young adult who made the decision to give our family life. It's pretty amazing – and Cherize and I would love to meet them one day."
But for now, Jamene knows to honour that person, there is one thing they can all do – live life to the fullest.
"In the beginning, I was scared and lived in fear. Now we get up every morning happy and go for it!"
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