After three decades, Tracy Holmes (41) continues to be a medical marvel.
As New Zealand’s first successful liver transplant patient, the bubbly Hamiltonian can be found baking up a storm for her health insurance colleagues by day, and taking the stage as an amateur musical theatre star by night.
“Oh no, nothing has held me back!” she defiantly declares. “I’ll give everything a go once, if I can do it. I have lived an absolutely normal life, no different to the person beside me. I work full time, I’m involved in musical theatre, I played netball at high school. I love rugby and watching the All Blacks – I’m very vocal!”
This October marks 30 years since Tracy’s successful liver transplant. No stranger to the Weekly, we have followed Tracy’s progress since her first transplant as an Otautau 10-year-old in 1986.
Doctors picked up that something was wrong with Tracy from birth, but it wasn’t until she was 18 months old that she was diagnosed with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency disease – where an enzyme deficiency causes the gradual death of her liver cells.
“I was extremely tiny,” Tracy explains. “I had tiny joints and bones, but with a very swollen belly from my liver and my spleen being so enlarged in comparison to the rest of my body.
“I had general anaesthetic every six weeks, which dragged me down. The doctors said I couldn’t go on like this or I was going to die. Basically, my childhood was spent in hospital.”
No liver transplants had ever been performed in New Zealand, so Tracy and her family travelled from Southland to Addenbrook Hospital in Cambridge, England for the pioneering surgery thanks to money generously raised by the Otautau Lions Club.
Within a week, a donor liver became available and Tracy had the surgery. But three weeks after returning to New Zealand, her body began to reject the donated organ.
“I went green, that horrible colour you go when your liver isn’t functioning.”
She had to return to Cambridge for further surgery. Within 24 hours of being on the donor list, another suitable liver was found and Tracy once again had life-saving surgery. Thankfully, this time, it worked.
“People can be on waiting lists for years and years,” she says. “I was extremely lucky.”
And she’ll never forget the generosity of the community.
“The Lions Club – in one sense I owe my life to them because they raised all the money for my transplants. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to go.”
Tracy is determined to live a life as full as possible – despite one minor setback.
“I’m on anti-rejection medication for life and I’ve had only one major hiccup when they had to do a reconstruction surgery in 2004 at the transplant unit in Auckland Hospital.
“What I refer to as the plumbing between my liver and bowel started to fail,” she recalls. “It had been so long since the transplant and it needed to be fixed up.”
After an experience like this, your average person might be put off hospitals for life, but not Tracy. Since her teenage years, she dreamed of being a nurse and working in healthcare.
“Unfortunately, because of the injections you have to have, I couldn’t be a nurse. I’m not able to have some of the required vaccinations. But I have worked in health insurance for 15 years and I really, really love my job.”
However, it didn’t stop her older sister Shelley from joining the medical profession.
“Definitely her years spent in hospital with me contributed to the amazing nurse that she is.”
It’s a sentiment she repeats about her parents, Gary and Ngaire Holmes, reflecting on the strength of her family during that stressful period.
“We are a very tight-knit family who got through all the obstacles and came out the other side,” she says.
The family also keeps in touch with nurses on the ward Tracy was in during her transplant surgeries in the UK and members of the Lions club.
To celebrate her 30-year milestone, a huge party was held in Dunedin with family, friends, and members of the community who supported Tracy family over the years, even her beloved 93-year-old nana attended!
Tracy and her family have never received any information about the person who gave her that second liver, but it’s something she holds dear.
“I am indebted to my donor and their family for my life. There are no words to describe how thankful I am.
“A lot of New Zealanders gave money for my surgery and for them to see how well I’m doing is one of the biggest things because, honestly, I can’t thank those people enough.
“And I want to encourage organ donation. I want people to see how well someone can do after a transplant and the impact it can have.”
Words: Ciara Pratt
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