LITTLE more than a year ago, Colleen Ashby was clinging to life, with 14 machines keeping her alive following a heart transplant that robbed her of almost all of her vision.
Today the Lesmurdie resident is weighing up all the opportunities that life with a new heart has presented as she trains for the Australian Transplant Games on the Gold Coast later this year.
Colleen (53) a former fitness instructor who has type I diabetes, was fit and healthy until signs of heart disease – a major complication of diabetes – developed in her 40s.
Last January, Colleen underwent a heart transplant at Fiona Stanley Hospital.
“It didn’t quite go to plan,” she said.
“I spent four days on life support because the new heart wouldn’t start up.
“The family was called in three times and told I wasn’t going to make it.”
After five days Colleen woke up but had suffered ischemic optic neuropathy, a condition in which blood loss permanently damages the optic nerves that send signals from the eyes to the brain, enabling sight.
She has five per cent peripheral vision in her right eye and no useable vision in her left eye, but Colleen says she took the devastating news on the chin.
“Honestly, I take things as they come,” she said.
“I’ve always played the cards that are dealt to me, and I thought well if this has happened, it’s going to open up new doorways.
“Losing my vision is a small price to pay for having a new chance of life with the new heart.”
Colleen is now training to compete as a swimmer at the Australian Transplant Games, which begin on September 30 and will feature athletes from 17 nations.
“I’m going great guns now,” she said.
“I swim 1600 metres three times a week and I’m out walking all around the hills and I do my own weight training at home.
“Swimming is about the only event I can do with low vision.
“I can swim in my lane and I can see enough of the line on the bottom of the pool, so that’s my plan.”.
Colleen said she did not see anything remarkable about her drive and her optimism.
“I feel like my world has opened up more,” she says.
“People seem to think you’re pretty amazing when you’re doing things and you can’t see, but I think it’s just every day and it’s no big deal.
“People at work say, ‘Oh my God, you’re amazing, I don’t know how you do it’, but I think that you just do it. It’s life. What else do you do?”
Vision Australia has supported Colleen since she was in the cardiac care unit a year ago, initially giving practical support to ensure her mobile phone was more accessible.
The non-profit organisation has also supplied her with a hot pink cane, visual and tactile aids and a range of kitchen gadgets.
“Vision Australia is fabulous – they are always on the phone if you need them, or offering anything new that might be handy,” Colleen said.
It has also supported her goals to be more independent in the home and in the wider community, including returning to work at a local high school.
Colleen is seeking help to raise money to get her and her family to the Australian Transplant Games on the Gold Coast. To donate go to gofundme.com/colleengetmetothegames