Four months ago Ray Hartle, 55, underwent heart transplant surgery at Christiaan Barnard Hospital in Cape Town, giving him an unexpected new lease of life which he ascribes to “God’s grace given unmerited, undeserved; the knowledge and skills of medical staff; and the prayers and support of so many, many people, known and unknown to me, across the road and around the world.”
An East London-based family man (married to Belinda and father to Heath and Rebecca) and former journalist who later went into corporate communications, Hartle says his second “second chance” at life (he underwent life-saving surgery in 2007 after an embolism infected his bowel — his first “second chance”) required somebody else to give up their life.
‘A life sacrificed for me to live’
“Through all our prayers for a successful transplant, through all the moments of thanksgiving, through the emotional roller coaster, through the waiting, through the surgery, the recovery process, we have been aware of a life sacrificed for me to live. And we have been humbled and honoured by that sacrifice,” he says.
Hartle, who gave his life to the Lord during his Grade 11 year when he was living with his parents in Gelvandale, Port Elizabeth, says that the idea of giving up one’s life for another and sacrifice are fundamental to his Christian faith.
His new lease of life comes with new challenges, he says.
“I take nothing for granted, everything I am and have, are precious gifts. My life is no longer my own, if I ever believed somehow that it was.
“The biggest challenge for me is knowing what my life must be like in this new season that I have been given. How do I take care of this heart? How do I do the honourable things in what I eat, how I exercise, spend my time, stay healthy?
“More importantly, how do I live in honour of my donor’s sacrifice – how do I serve others, sacrifice myself for loved ones, but also for strangers whom I may never meet, like my donor and my donor’s family have done? What do I do with this new life, not just for myself or to benefit my family, but to impact my world?”
Hartle’s gift of a new heart — which suddenly became available in October 2016 when it seemed likely that he would have to wait years before a heart became available because of the long waiting list for hearts and the complexity of finding a perfect match — has also deeply impacted the spiritual journey of his brother-in-law, Port Elizabeth banker, Gary Quantoi.
Quantoi said a key moment for him came about last year after he had been struggling with the news that his daughter Tracy had been diagnosed with cancer. As he wrestled with the situation and prayed for his daughter he reached a point where he sensed God speaking to him about prayer.
Lesson in faith
The Lord said: “When you ask for something have childlike faith. And when you speak to circumstances have God-like faith.”
Following his prayer revelation he said he obeyed a prompting from the Holy Spirit to drive to East London to anoint Hartle with oil and to pray for him.
In East London he said he prayed boldly for Hartle who by that stage was seriously ill and had lost a lot of weight.
“I spoke to his condition. I spoke to his heart. And I said to Raymond ‘God is going to give you a brand new heart’.
Explaining his health battles, Hartle says during his embolism crisis in 2007 it was also discovered that he had cardiomyopathy — a weak heart muscle.
“I got ill following ongoing bouts of flu in 2015 and over the next year my heart’s ejection fraction (the rate at which it pumps blood through the body) dropped from 30% to 10%, which is regarded as heart failure. (The normal ejection fraction is above 50%).
“In August (2015) I was referred to the heart transplant unit at Christiaan Barnard Hospital in Cape Town and accepted unofficially as a candidate for a heart transplant but administrative processes including medical aid approval, still needed to be finalised.”
Then more than a year later, last year — at the time that Quantoi prayed with him — a cardiologist in East London referred him to the heart transplant team in Cape Town as he felt nothing else could be done to heal him.
“At that stage I had been in the ICU for about 10 days, receiving intravenous medication to assist my heart to pump. This also improved my appetite so I could eat reasonably normally. My weight had progressively dropped from 108kg in 2007 to 98kg in 2014 to 75kg by the time I got to Cape Town.
“At times I had been totally revolted by the sight, smell and taste of food and drink. For someone who had enjoyed a love affair with any and all food for most of my life, this was a serious problem!
“If it was left to me alone, I would probably not have proceeded with a transplant. In any case, I thought it would be a long wait before a donor heart became available, perhaps a few years and could my heart and the rest of my body which was being impacted more and more by my condition, wait that long?
Wanting to live
“My family felt strongly that the decision wasn’t mine alone to make — they wanted me to live. And, in retrospect, I realise that I, too, wanted to live even, and want to continue living as meaningfully and fruitfully as I can, even as I have had complete peace about dying.
“Initially, after undergoing various tests, I was released from hospital to await medical aid approval and the availability of a donor heart. But my condition continued to deteriorate, with almost constant nausea and an inability to eat. I was admitted to hospital on a semi-permanent basis and resigned myself to a long wait for a transplant. As an alternative option, the medical team also applied for approval to insert an artificial heart device. However, this is a hugely expensive option.
But then things started to move fast — a sign of God’s intervention, according to Quantoi, who is continuing to pray boldly for the healing of his own daughter.
Describing the sudden turn of events late last year, Hartle says: “On Monday, October 10, the head of the transplant team, Dr Willie Koen, came to my ward with the anesthetist to inform me that medical aid approval had been granted the previous Friday, that I was now officially on the list of awaiting transplant patients, that a donor heart had become available on Monday morning and that they would perform the transplant at 7am the next day.
“At that moment, my mind was a whirl. After they left, I stood at the window looking out towards Signal Hill and cried silently. It has taken me a long time to process all I have experienced. Each day brings new opportunities for reflection, for thanksgiving, for re-commitment.
“The actual transplant procedure, as complicated as it might be, is not the biggest challenge. Rather, it is the availability of donor organs, and the tough post-transplant medication regime to prevent rejection of the new heart.
“I am now back at home in EL, almost four months post-transplant,” he says.
New life challenges
Commenting on the challenge he now feels to honour all that it has taken for him to have a new lease of life, he says: “One area I am passionate about is ensuring that more information is available about this treatment (heart transplants) so that poor people especially in rural areas and especially children, have access to the healing, life affirming treatment I have received. I am in discussion with various people to explore how we can achieve this.”
Hartle has started a blog at http://wordpix.co.za/ about his heart transplant experience.