‘1 year to live’ – 25 years on


Alastair Gilchrist was once told he only had one year to live, having become the victim of an enlarged heart. He later had a heart transplant which doctors told him had given him a reprieve of five years. Twenty-six years later, on his 65th birthday, Mr Gilchrist is still here, and he sat down with ‘Clutha Leader’ reporter JACK CONROY to reveal his life-altering journey.

“It’s a pretty big milestone, considering I nearly didn’t make it to 40.”

Alastair Gilchrist was 38 when he first took sick in early 1991, and doctors did not know what was wrong with him.

“I had a lack of energy. I was breathless, doing very little.”

He went to his local GP, who suspected he might have asthma, and was put on medication.

“I had quite a severe allergic reaction to it. Within hours of taking it, I was in the hospital.”

Once in Dunedin Hospital, and stabilised, doctors were able to properly diagnose Mr Gilchrist with a condition called cardiomyopathy.

“My heart was attacked by a virus . . . with the heart being a muscle, after being attacked, it enlarged to try and cope. The bigger it gets the more useless it is.”

Mr Gilchrist was an employee of Temby Holdings, a farming outfit, but had to take almost a year off work, restricted to light duties at home.

In November, 1991 Mr Gilchrist returned to work, but by late June 1992, he was having heart rhythm problems, and was rushed back to hospital.

“They then decided a transplant was my only option. I thought, ‘You’ve got to be joking.’ Heart transplants were in the early stages at that time.”

He was transferred to Greenlane Hospital in Auckland, which specialised in heart surgery.

Mr Gilchrist said it was a bad time for him, as well as his wife Pam, and their daughter Anna, who was only 12.

According to Pam, “It was quite scary in a way, because we didn’t know how long we would be there. And we didn’t know how long it would take to get a donor.”

After two weeks a heart became available, the transplant was performed and the young father had a new heart.

‘‘My body had shut down to the pace of my old heart . . . now I suddenly had a good heart. The pulsating in my body was unbelievable. It was really strong.’’

Mr Gilchrist was closely monitored and nursed back to health over the next three months, while he and his family resided at Greenlane Hospital’s ‘‘Hearty Towers’’ facility.

It was an emotional time, as he realised how close he had come to the end.

‘‘I had been given a second chance at life. It was a privilege to get a heart donation. If I didn’t get it I would have been gone a long time ago.’’

Notwithstanding medical predictions that he would last no more than five years, even after the transplant, Mr Gilchrist has lived to experience things he thought had been taken from him.

He saw his daughter get married, and have two children of her own, 13-year-old Holly and 10-year-old Sam.

Mr Gilchrist returned to his original occupation of carpentry, and now worked for Bellford Building and Joinery.

In his downtime he enjoys spending time with his family and tending to his garden.
Mr and Mrs Gilchrist have spent the past few decades travelling.

‘‘We probably explored our local area a lot more than we normally would. I’ve been to most places in New Zealand now.’’

Mrs Gilchrist said they would soon be taking a trip to Perth.