Heart starter

While he waits for a donor heart, this Melburnian has found meaningful ways to fulfil his Ignatian obligation to serve others.


By Peter Callinan, teacher at Xavier College, Kew 

I’m waiting for a gift. It can’t be bought at a stocktake sale. It can’t be bought online. No one can define how long the wait time is. No one will bring it to my front door and ask me to sign for it. 

I’m waiting for a heart. 

I’m 49 years old. I was born in 1975 and diagnosed with a congenital heart defect which required emergency surgery as an eighteen-month-old. How fortunate was I to be in Melbourne where the Royal Children’s Hospital was located, and where I received the care and had access to the brilliant surgeons I needed! The operation was a success, and I grew into a happy and healthy boy with minimal disruption to a normal life. I had annual check-ups with a cardiologist and was supposed to avoid overly strenuous activity. Nothing was ever an inconvenience, and I was able to do anything the other kids could do.   

I attended Xavier College as a student and had a wonderful education, allowing me to go on to further study and graduate from Melbourne University with a Master’s degree in education in the field of student wellbeing.  

In March 2023 I was teaching English and Humanities classes at Xavier when I began to feel increasingly tired and washed out. This continued for a few months and after some trips to various doctors I had to go home from work one day because I was feeling exhausted. It was the tiredness and lethargy that concerned me the most. I just had no energy to keep up with the needs of the students. It was really frustrating.  

Peter Callinan with his family. “They probably felt a sense of dread more than I did,” he writes. “My three children were no doubt churning through a sea of emotions, not to mention my wife.” Photo courtesy the Callinan family.

Eventually, my wife encouraged me to go to the doctor to see what was really going on. But I had seen doctors already and had been told that there were any number of causes ranging from anxiety, gut issues, stress and even sleep apnoea, so I was keen to bypass GPs. Instead, I went to the emergency department of our local hospital. 

There, I was told that I was suffering from heart failure. I think it took me a few days to really understand what I had been told. They admitted me to hospital and put me on some medication that could possibly alleviate some of the symptoms. I was then informed that this was not a long-term solution and that I had only a few months left.  

I guess I now knew why I was feeling so exhausted! I’m not sure why I reacted the way I did to this news, but I immediately felt a sense that I needed to move forward without fuss. No need to overthink things here. I was going to proceed with the advice given and give myself every chance to successfully navigate a way forward. I had no sense of self-pity, nor did I ever think that things would not pan out in my favour.  

The family probably felt a sense of dread more than I did. My three children were no doubt churning through a sea of emotions, not to mention my wife. I wanted to be strong, brave, and slightly dismissive of the situation around them. I knew that if I was worried, then they would be also.  

The only option, as we all saw it, was to be fitted with an LVAD or left ventricular assist device, and eventually be placed on a wait list for a heart transplant. So what exactly is an LVAD? It’s a device that helps pump blood from the lower chambers of the heart to the rest of the body. Basically, it’s a system that helps in the case of a weak heart or when someone has suffered heart failure.  

Things progressed very quickly and I was scheduled to be operated on within the fortnight. This time was spent in hospital, where I had more of an opportunity to digest my new reality. It was during this period that my time spent in Jesuit schools, both as a student and teacher, really began to resonate more deeply. Rather than feeling self-pity, I immediately began to reflect on how I could be of service to others. How could I turn this into a helpful situation for other people? How could I help my wife, my kids and my family? How could I be of service to the medical staff and nurses who were looking after me?  

“I regularly talk to patients who are about to undergo the same procedure and I talk to their families too. I have joined a hospital committee which advises heart technology technicians on the path forward in heart healthcare from a patient perspective.” Photo by Janark Gray

I knew I was very fortunate that The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne is a vibrant teaching hospital. It has many trainee nurses, doctors, physiotherapists and other specialist trainees. My first resolution was to encourage as many of these students to feel free and open to ask me questions whenever they needed. I soon became well known as the patient you could go to as part of your rounds to ask questions of. My inner teacher was coming to the fore.  

Doctors started to ask if they could send in students to examine me. I was even asked to do my own rounds and talk to others who were going through the same thing.  

Since my LVAD has been inserted, I am feeling well. I regularly talk to patients who are about to undergo the same procedure and I talk to their families too. I have joined a hospital committee which advises heart technology technicians on the path forward in heart healthcare from a patient perspective.  

As I write this, I am feeling really well and attend the gym three times a week. I am listed for a transplant and I am awaiting the phone call at any time day or night to say, “Let’s go.” I spend time thinking about the events that need to take place for me to be well again with a new heart. The medical planets will need to align. Then there’s the fact that somebody doesn’t know it yet, but they may be donating their heart to me! It is here where I find it difficult to comprehend that someone has decided that if they are not able to stay alive that they want to donate their organs to others. Wow! Add to this the fact that the person who donates the heart to me doesn’t know they are going to die.  

Everything I espouse to my students about finding ways to share their gifts and talents in the service of others is ringing true here. How can we best serve the needs of others? How can I, the one in need, still fulfil my obligations to serve others? As one can imagine, it is a vast landscape for the mind to wander.  

Medical technology and scientific advancements in this field are also worth considering. There has been remarkable progress since the first heart transplant was performed by Dr Christiaan Barnard in South Africa in 1967. I have even seen a prototype of a magnetic heart which requires no power source that is currently being developed. This could potentially eradicate rejection of an organ and end the need for donation entirely.  

As it stands, I will wait. I will hope and I will spread as much of my voice as I can. I will ultimately rely on the kindness of others and in the interim try to pay it forward as much as possible. 

The Australian Organ Donor Register can be accessed here. 

Banner image of Peter Callinan at Xavier College by Janark Gray.


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