A few weeks after Margi Inskeep celebrated her 21st birthday, she got the best present she could hope for – a new heart.
“That gift not only saved my life, it changed my life,” says the Bay of Plenty early-childhood worker, now 28.
“I don’t take anything for granted any more. I’m grateful just to be able to walk to my letterbox.”
Margi was born with the heart condition hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, where the heart’s muscle wall becomes thickened, making it harder to pump blood. Her father Gerald Inskeep, 69, is affected, and his mother Daphne and sister Zelda both died young from the condition.
After a lifetime of poor health, Margi had a transplant seven years ago. She’s sharing her story to highlight the chronic need for more donors and to show how a life can change dramatically through organ donation.
“People ask me if it’s weird to have someone else’s heart in me,” tells Margi. “It’s not. I just feel grateful to my donor and their family.” And that gratitude is now etched on Margi’s body forever, with a tattoo directly above her new heart, which reads “RIP Barry” in memory of her donor.
A few years after receiving her heart, she met briefly with her donor’s family. “It was an emotional time. They were grieving for their son, but I wanted to say, ‘Thank you – your son saved my life.’”
Margi was a sickly child, which was initially put down to asthma, but at the age of six, her heart condition was diagnosed. At 16, she collapsed while walking up a driveway. From there, her health deteriorated.
By 17, Margi’s cardiologist told her she wouldn’t make it to 25. “I thought he was a drama queen,” she laughs.
“I didn’t realise how sick I was because feeling ill had become my normal.” She had a constant cough and needed her lungs drained of fluid regularly. “I couldn’t lie flat, so I slept in a La-Z-Boy.”
Close to death
At 20, Margi was in chronic heart failure and a transplant became her only option.
In April 2009, after only six weeks on a waiting list, she received a call that would change her destiny. She had a donor.
But the complications from Margi’s transplant came close to taking her life. After six hours in surgery, her body rejected the new heart and started to shut down. For a fortnight, she was kept alive at Auckland City Hospital by a machine that did the work of her heart and lungs.
Her big sister Lilly flew back from London to say goodbye and her mother Pat Revell called a Catholic priest to anoint her. Pat, 60, recalls, “After two weeks, the doctors said, ‘We can’t keep her on the machine forever. Let’s switch it off and see if the heart starts beating.’ Thankfully, the new heart kicked in.”
Margi was alive but faced a long recovery and had to learn to walk again.
Now, as well as celebrating her own birthday each year, Margi marks her “heart birthday” on the anniversary of her transplant. It’s a day to be thankful to her donor and the new life he’s given her.
As donor hearts only last about 10 years, Margi knows she may not live a long life, but she isn’t afraid of the future. “People ask me if I’m worried about dying young and I’m not,” she insists. “I’m just grateful I’ve been given a second chance.”