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Organ-ising a simple decision

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Organ-ising a simple decision

A Sunshine Coast woman knows only too well how important Australia’s annual DonateLife Week is in raising awareness of organ donation for saving lives and improving quality of life for recipients.
WORDS: Candice Holznagel.

Can you donate one minute to give someone else a lifetime? One minute. That’s all it takes to tell your family you would like to be an organ donor.

One minute to register your intent with Australia’s official authority.

For 32-year-old Renee Vitelli, someone’s one minute was the gift of life.

It gave her more time to love, to live and to help spread the vital message about the importance of organ donation.

“It’s given me a life that eight years ago I would never have assumed I would have,” she says.

“I now have the normality of working, of paying a mortgage, of having children.

“Compared to the quality of lifestyle and the life I had before, these things really aren’t hard.

“Hard times for me were trying to hang a sheet on the line while I couldn’t physically breathe.”

Renee was 11 weeks old when she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis: an illness that attacks the lungs and digestive system by altering how cells move salt and water around the body.

It causes mucus build-up, which results in breathing difficulty, frequent lung infections, tiredness, poor growth and weight gain. It also makes a person more susceptible to infections.

CF is the most common life-limited genetic condition affecting Australians and there is no cure.

The disease is generally identified through a heel prick test in newborns.

Unfortunately, Renee’s test was lost in the system, and it wasn’t until her concerned mum took her for a health check that it was identified.

“One of the nurses there gave me a kiss on the forehead and could immediately tell I was a CF baby. People with CF excrete a lot of salt and she could taste the salt on her lips,” Renee says.

Until her late teens, Renee lived a relatively healthy life. Her parents ensured their daughter completed her physiotherapy and took her “cocktail of medications”. The family also relocated from Brisbane to the Sunshine Coast so Renee could have regular access to the ocean. Inhaling salt water and salt air is beneficial for CF patients.

“It wasn’t explained to me as a big deal,” Renee says of her illness.

“It was part of my routine and my life, so I didn’t think much of it.

“I guess I got a bit cocky when I was in my late teens. I had been so healthy for so long that I started skipping things like my medication.”

Over time, Renee’s health deteriorated, and her body suffered irreparable damage. Through her senior high school years, she was in and out of hospital and being treated for infections.

She graduated high school and began university, but her health continued to decline.

Renee pushed through, refusing to live the life of a “sick person”, often hiding her illness from peers and work colleagues.

Then the breaking point came.

Renee was spending more time in hospital than at home.

At the age of 24, with her lungs failing, she was added to Australia’s transplant list.

“It got to the point the transplant team were like ‘you can’t work anymore’,” she says.

“It was hard to swallow.

“They were essentially saying that I couldn’t continue. I was sleeping 20 hours a day and couldn’t eat because it was placing too much pressure on my lungs. Everything was physically exhausting. A healthy person can pick up a basic virus and it doesn’t affect them but it would put me in hospital. Dying from a cold or the flu is not uncommon for a person with CF.”

Not surprisingly, the situation took a toll on Renee’s mental health, too.

“When the transplant team brought it up [doing a transplant] with me, I already knew it was coming. You can feel when your body is failing.

“I couldn’t even walk the length of my house. There were many times where I was like ‘Jesus, take me now’.

“There was no other choice. I either had to get on board with the transplant or get out of the way.”

In the three months she waited for her transplant surgery, Renee planned her funeral and prepared her family.

Thankfully, the seven-hour surgery was a success. Pain-free, she was home 10 days after the transplant. Today, Renee is upbeat and energetic. She works full-time and has fiancé Richard and two step-children, aged 12 and 14.

Her quality of life has “improved ten-fold”.

“I watched so many people not get a transplant in time. When they did take my old lungs, they saw I had bronchial pneumonia and said I would have only had a couple of months left to live.

“Knowing that I’ve essentially been given an extra seven-and-a-half years is humbling. It’s amazing.

“I found that I evaluated my life, about who I wanted to be and the role I wanted to play in my life and in those around me. It’s been the most amazing opportunity to continue doing something in this world and to be representing my donor and my donor’s family.

“It takes a minute to give someone a lifetime. That’s the crux of it.

“You can choose what organs you donate. It doesn’t have to be a blanket thing.

“If people are able to let others know their wishes … don’t forget to tell your family you want to be a donor.

“Somebody’s life may depend on it.”

The facts

  • 80 per cent of Australians aged 16 and over support organ and tissue donation – yet only seven million are actually registered. The number should be closer to 16 million.
  • That means there are nine million Australians who say they support organ and tissue donation, but haven’t yet signed up.
  • Trend data shows that 90 per cent of families will consent to donation if you are a registered donor. This number is halved if they don’t know you want to be an organ and tissue donor or you haven’t registered.
  • One organ donor can save the lives of up to seven people, and more through eye and tissue donation.
  • There are currently about 1800 Australians on the organ waitlist
    and 13,000 more on dialysis for kidney failure.
  • Since the emergence of COVID-19, the number of donors and people who have received a transplant has dropped by 15 per cent, although there was a small increase in 2022 compared with 2021.

Source: donatelife.gov.au.

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Candice's passion for journalism led her to the Sunshine Coast 12 years ago where she has worked across multiple media and communication platforms. An avid traveller (she lists Paris, Venice and Vietnam as her faves), this mum of one loves meeting with people from all walks of life and finds inspiration within their stories. Candice joined the team in 2014 and is MWP's editor.

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