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Transplant teen: ‘We can feel his heart beating’

Transplant teen: ‘We can feel his heart beating'

Jul 04, 2013

Transplant teen: ‘We can feel his heart beating’

Aaron’s heart surgery a success, family grateful to donors

By Joanna Frketich

If Michele Wilson could face the family who gave her son a heart on Canada Day, she’d “grab them and not let go.”

“We can put our hands on his chest and feel his heart beating,” said the mom of 18-year-old Aaron O’Neill.

“For four months there was no heart beating, just the whir of machines. It’s truly amazing and all because someone was kind enough to think of someone else at the worst time of their life.”

The 7-foot Hill Park Secondary School grad was at Toronto General Hospital for four months, being kept alive by machines, after a virus destroyed his previously healthy heart.

The family’s hope was starting to wane when the call came at 3:30 p.m. on Canada Day, that there might finally be a donor heart for O’Neill.

“It was getting to the point where we didn’t know if it was going to happen,” said Wilson. “Aaron is so big and the devices (keeping him alive) are meant for short-term use.”

Late Wednesday, O’Neill hadn’t yet been woken up from the 10-hour operation that started at 8 p.m. Monday, and a second two-hour surgery the next morning to stop excess bleeding.

His last words in the operating room to the transplant team were, “Tell my mom I love her.”

She can’t wait to hear him say it himself — hopefully Thursday, if he continued to do well overnight.

Staff at Toronto General have been coming in on their days off to see him since hearing he got his new heart.

The family has been “amazed and thrilled” by the outpouring of support from the Hamilton community on O’Neill’s Facebook page called the “Heart of the Matter.”

It has more than 1,000 ‘likes’ — a key milestone O’Neill wanted to reach.

“It’s what has kept him going,” said his mom, about the dark days of waiting.

It took 17 rings before the long-awaited call telling them a heart had been found was answered. Wilson and her husband were at a meeting down the hall and the nurses were busy with patients.

“They told us not to get too excited,” said Wilson. “Aaron was bouncing off the walls. It was the closest we’d come.”

O’Neill and his family played board games as a distraction for an agonizing two-and-a-half hours until the next call came at 6 p.m. to prepare him for the transplant. They were warned that the surgeon had the final call after seeing the heart.

As her son was being wheeled away, Wilson reminded him that on the day they found out he needed a transplant he said he’d beat this.

“You made me a promise,” she said to him.

“I know and I will keep it,” was the last thing he said to her.

Her husband gave him a hug and “Aaron didn’t want to let go.”

“The wait was awful,” Wilson said of the surgery. “It was long.”

But the donor heart started beating immediately after the transplant, at 5:45 a.m. on July 2.

“It was a huge relief,” said Wilson. “But as happy as we are, we know there is a family on the opposite end of the spectrum. There are no words to thank them enough. We’ll remember Canada Day as a great day and they won’t.”

One of Wilson’s best moments was getting to touch her son’s toes when he got out of surgery.

“It felt so good,” she said. “Just knowing he was OK and feeling his warmth.”

He’s ventilated and hooked up to about 10 intravenous pumps, but that’s a beautiful sight to his family.

“He’s got such big plans,” said Wilson. “He say’s he’ll never be home because he has so much he wants to do. Now he’ll have a chance to do it all.”

The family urges Hamiltonians to go to and register to become organ donors.

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