Organ transplantation has revolutionised modern medicine, offering hope and a second chance at life to countless individuals.
However, despite remarkable progress, significant challenges remain. From increasing the number of viable organs available to reducing transplant rejection and reducing the risk of post-transplant complications, at the centre of it all is research – because research saves lives.
Lives like Aaron’s.
In 2020, Aaron Lee was a healthy 27-year-old man with a love of cycling who was excitedly preparing for the birth of his first child. But towards the end of that year, he unexpectedly became unwell.
Aaron went to the Emergency Department of his hospital in Perth with shortness of breath and was later diagnosed with pneumonia.
He promptly began treatment. However, in the weeks that followed, he wasn’t getting any better, so he had a chest x-ray. The following day his doctor called, extremely concerned about what the imaging showed.
“They told me I needed to go to the emergency department as my x-ray was abnormal. It was very unexpected – for weeks I thought I had a chest infection that just wouldn’t go away,” Aaron recalled.
“The reality was that my heart was not in a good state. I had severe heart failure. It was a huge shock, especially as our baby was due about 4 or 5 weeks after that.”
The diagnosis was idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy. With no family history or genetic links to heart disease, doctors say this could have been the result of an undetermined virus that had significantly damaged Aaron’s heart muscle.
Aaron was transferred to Perth’s Fiona Stanley Hospital, where he started treatment immediately, and doctors carried out tests to figure out the severity of his heart failure.
“The thought of transplant hadn’t even crossed my mind at that stage. I just thought my treatment would include a range of medications.
Four days later – on Christmas Eve – Aaron’s wife went into labour.
“My son was born on Christmas Day amidst all the chaos. They let me travel to a different hospital about 40 minutes away to be there for his birth. I had to wear a defibrillator vest to make the trip,” said Aaron.
Aaron was discharged from the hospital on Boxing Day but was still very sick, tired and sleeping a lot. Despite that, Aaron continued to visit the cardiac gym in an attempt to stay as strong as he could.
“It became apparent at the gym that I was getting more tired, short of breath and intolerant to exercise. One day I couldn’t even finish a 5-minute walk on the treadmill. After that I got called in and was told I needed a heart transplant,” Aaron recalled.
“That’s when it really set in how scary it was. Up until that point, it never dawned on me that I might die.”
Aaron was on the transplant list for around 5 to 6 weeks.
“My condition was deteriorating, and I was told to go to the ICU. At 6 am the next day I received that life-changing call and was told they’d found a match for a transplant,” he said.
This life-saving gift of a new heart is one he is incredibly grateful for. A gift that has allowed him to spend precious time with his little boy.
“I often find myself looking up to the clouds, thinking about how thankful I am to receive this gift from a stranger and for their family for making that momentous decision.”
“My son was born during this absolutely chaotic time. He’s three now. It’s the most fun being around him now. These past few years, I’ve worked hard to be fit and healthy so I can be around for him and my wife,” Aaron said.
“I’m constantly in awe of the things I can do now, and it’s the really basic stuff that’s most special.”
Something that means a lot to Aaron is cycling – and he is now preparing to participate in the upcoming Tour de Brisbane, an important ride to support transplant research through The Prince Charles Hospital Foundation.
The Foundation, through The Common Good, is proud to support Australia’s leading heart and lung hospital – The Prince Charles Hospital.
This hospital is a hub for a range of specialised state-wide services, including heart and lung transplantation and transplant-related conditions.
“Having just received a second chance at life, I had time to reflect on things, and while I wasn’t sure I’d be able to cycle again, I started researching the rides out there around transplant, and the first thing that came up was the World Transplant Games. A few months later, I heard about Tour de Brisbane and its connection to The Common Good and The Prince Charles Hospital Foundation and how it supports transplant research. Since then, it’s a ride I wanted to get involved with,” said Aaron.
Now, three years on, Aaron is ticking the Tour de Brisbane off his bucket list, and he has big plans to use his ride to make a difference for others impacted by organ failure and related conditions.
Ahead of the Tour de Brisbane, Aaron hopes to raise $10,000 for vital organ transplant research through The Common Good.
“Some of the technology coming out there is quite remarkable. Research is so important, and it’s only going to lead to more innovation and success for people with heart conditions and their families,” Aaron said.
The now 30-year-old also hopes his participation in the event will spread awareness of what is possible after a transplant.
“It’s such a selfless gift that I will never take for granted, and I want to live my life to the fullest now that I’ve got this second chance.”
Aaron recently participated in the Australian Cycling Road Nationals alongside several other heart transplant recipients, including Rob Hodgson and bone marrow transplant recipient and Director of Allied Health at The Prince Charles Hospital Perry Judd.
“I connected with Rob after my transplant, but while he was on the waiting list. We’ve grown to share a bit of a special bond. We stay in touch and ride virtually, and I hope we inspire other transplant recipients to share their journeys and connect with one another,” said Aaron.
In 2023, six months after Rob’s heart transplant, Rob participated virtually in the Tour de Brisbane event, from his garage in Sydney. With the support of Aaron, who connected through virtual cycling app Fulgaz, his wife Amanda, who is a source of encouragement and hope to the transplant community, and an incredible online community of family and friends, Rob not only completed his 50 km challenge but raised over $10,000 for transplant research in the process.
This upcoming Tour de Brisbane will be particularly special for Aaron, as he will ride alongside his dad.
“I started road cycling when I was 13 with dad. I rode competitively until I was about 19 or 20 and then continued to ride recreationally. I’ve really enjoyed racing and training and keeping fit. Cycling has always been there in my life,” Aaron said.
“Dad and I have always ridden together, and it’s been really special to ride with him. He has also helped me with my fitness my whole life. I know he’s stoked that I’ve surpassed him in fitness again, as he tells me that’s how it should be.”
Aaron is travelling across the country to participate in the Tour de Brisbane ride. With his new heart, Aaron will be riding 110km and hopes to raise $10,000 to support further life-saving and life-changing transplant research.
You can donate to Aaron here.