Researching The Gift of Life: Watching a Heart Transplant to Finding the Silent Story

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Research is my happy place. I do extensive research for every book I write and it’s where I learn not just technical information but also start to find my character development, settings and plot points too. I get to travel within Australian and overseas for location research, which is a great gift. I interview people, spend hours on the internet, watch loads of YouTube videos and, inevitably, buy a lot of reference books. It is the phase where anything is still possible, ideas are still forming and excitement takes me back again and again for more.

My forthcoming novel, The Gift of Life, is based around organ donation, specifically, heart transplants. I love anatomy (I studied it for two semesters) and Biology was also my strongest subject at school and I then did another semester of it at uni. As a result, I loved brushing up on all my anatomy and physiology and researching the many causes and treatments of heart failure, some of which lead to the need for an organ donation. I even ended up at the cardiologist myself, as I have a long history of arrhythmias and, as I found out in my research, these can lead to heart failure! (Fortunately for me, the type I have appear to be uncomplicated.) My husband, too, also ended up at the cardiologist, then my mum went… It seemed like every time I turned around, ‘hearts’ were the theme of the day.  One thing I learned through all this research was that we are all vulnerable to heart issues, which can come with a long list of complications, which can also lead to a need for a transplant. I really had no idea how common it was.

The amount of personal testimony I came across (both from the point of view of a heart transplant recipient and also from the family of those who had consented to the donation of their loved one’s organs) is significantly higher coming from the USA than it is Australia. This was both tricky–because the USA medical and legal systems are very different to ours–and also an opportunity to hear different experiences and voices from those who’ve gone through the process.

There is a wealth of videos on YouTube and I even came across one that showed a heart transplant operation. That one was a little tough to stomach, to be honest!

I interviewed two Australian heart transplant recipients, which was a fabulous opportunity to hear their stories firsthand. They were both very different people–he a middle-aged man with a wife, children and career–and she a young woman in her twenties with a long life ahead if only she could get the chance. Their experience of the process was vastly different too. The organ transplant process is a gamble at every stage: the illness, the waiting period, the operation, the recovery, the chances of rejection and ongoing complications.

In the end, I had way more information than I could use in the book, which is normal. The Gift of Life starts two years after Gabby McPhee had her heart transplant; therefore much of what I learned about the difficult, emotional waiting stage (and the ongoing physical rehabilitation and care through that period) had to be cut and left out; however, it’s all there in my mind, forming the basis to the background of Gabby’s psyche.

I also became really interested in the more silent half of the story–the experiences of the family members who make the decision to donate. These stories are harder to find, and understandably so, as their experience is rooted in trauma, shock and grief. But as a writer, that ‘silent space’ is the most interesting to me. The possibility of a new, untold story is the one I want to follow. The wealth of information I found on the other side (the recipient’s stories) served to highlight a gap in the narrative that, when voiced through the character of Krystal Arthur, fleshed out the full circle of life.

I loved researching this book. It was utterly fascinating from beginning to end.

 

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