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‘It’s a miracle’ - former commando on ‘super urgent’ waiting list has heart transplant at Royal Papworth Hospital

A former commando’s survival has been described as miraculous after he returned home following a successful heart transplant at Royal Papworth Hospital performed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Phill Hardwell
Phill Hardwell

Phill Hardwell, who served in the 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery, needed eight trips to the operating theatre before his life-saving treatment in what has been a long road to recovery.

The 32-year-old father of two had spent 12 years in the Army before being medically discharged owing to poor health in June 2018.

He was placed on the heart transplant list in September 2019, but his condition worsened and he was admitted to hospital in his home city of Bristol two months later due to a fluid build-up.

Ten days later, he was transferred to Royal Papworth where he was placed on a biventricular assist device (BiVAD), an implantable pump designed to help the heart function better by pumping blood around the body while he waited for a transplant.

Phill was placed on the super urgent list for heart transplants towards the end of January, but had to be taken off for two weeks in February due to a bleed on the brain.

Phill Hardwell with his former regiment pre-transplant. Picture: Papworth Hospital
Phill Hardwell with his former regiment pre-transplant. Picture: Papworth Hospital

However, after almost half a year which has included spending weeks at a time away from his young family, he is now back home after a successful transplant.

“I was here for Christmas, for New Year, I’ve been put on the transplant list, taken off it, and then put back on again. There are moments when you do wonder ‘will this ever happen?’,” said Phill of his time at Papworth.

“I just want to say thank you to my donor and their family for making this possible with their selfless act at the most difficult time.

“I’m already doing exercise on a static bike and step ups each day and feel better than I have in more than a year.”

The operation was performed by surgeon Pedro Catarino, clinical lead for transplant, who said: “Phill is an exceptionally tough man, physically and mentally. He has had eight different trips to theatre during the course of his care before being able to undergo his transplant.

“His family and especially his wife, Roxy, have been a great source of support.

“He had already waited for a donor organ for several months on an artificial heart support at Royal Papworth and then the Covid-19 crisis hit.

Phill Hardwell with his former regiment pre-transplant. Picture: Papworth Hospital
Phill Hardwell with his former regiment pre-transplant. Picture: Papworth Hospital

“We thought we might not get any donors during this time because intensive care units are so stretched in terms of staff and beds.

“It is a real tribute to the donor’s family, and to the hospital from where his donor came, that they had the capacity to think of organ donation while all that we see every day in the news was happening around them.”

Phill’s story made the news in February when a dozen members of the regiment drove up from Plymouth to visit and present him with a military beret, a framed army dagger and Commando Poem.

It was in February that Phill last saw his children, aged two and seven, but wife Roxy has been religiously by his side throughout his time in hospital as the couple relied on childcare back at home.

“It’s been so tough over the past five months and although our little one doesn’t understand what’s going on, our eldest boy is a lot more aware,” said Roxy.

Phill Hardwell with his former regiment pre-transplant. Picture: Papworth Hospital
Phill Hardwell with his former regiment pre-transplant. Picture: Papworth Hospital

“We have had to use Iron Man as a metaphor to explain what has been happening to his dad. Marvel is always on in our house so it can be too much sometimes, but has been really useful on this occasion.

“It’s been extra tough over the past few weeks because I’ve not been able to visit due to the coronavirus outbreak, so I’ve been staying locally in Cambridge at Phill’s request and we’ve been able to keep in touch with video calls each day.”

Phill has to shield for a fortnight as he is in the high-risk category for Covid-19, so the children will spend two weeks away from home.

But he added: “We can’t wait to see them, give them massive hugs and be a family of four again.”

Richard Quigley, lead nurse for transplant, said: “The sickest patients that require a transplant are placed on the super urgent waiting list.

“Phill certainly fulfilled that criteria. Whilst on critical care he was one of the sickest patients being cared for by the transplant and critical care teams.

Phill Hardwell and wife Roxy pre-transplant. Picture: Papworth Hospital
Phill Hardwell and wife Roxy pre-transplant. Picture: Papworth Hospital

“It’s a miracle really and testament to him, his family and the combined efforts of Royal Papworth Hospital teams that we have this outcome. The generosity of the donor and the donor family has made all of this possible.”

John Forsythe, medical director for organ donation and Transplantation at NHS Blood and Transplant, said: “I’m delighted to hear Phill is doing so well after his transplant and I wish him a safe and speedy recovery.

“He is testament to the hard work of the transplant teams who are still dedicated to maintaining some level of service to those most in need of a lifesaving transplant in the current climate.

“Ensuring the safety of organ donation and transplantation during this pandemic is creating substantial challenges.

“However, as Phill’s case shows, some transplants are still going ahead if it is safe and appropriate to do so, with transplant clinicians assessing individual cases and the current situation in their own hospital.

“Transplants cannot happen without donors, and it is thanks to the bravery and selflessness of those who agree to donate their loved ones organs in a time of such adversity that people can still receive their lifesaving organ transplant.”

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