The first Australian patient with a Berlin Heart to leave the safety of hospital.
For months, Angus has been confined to hospital with a serious heart condition. Last night – thanks to the heartfelt efforts of so many people – he ventured out to watch his beloved Geelong Cats in action
When Angus walked through the doors of the Geelong Football Club rooms, his face lit up with a smile months in the making.
For almost nine months, the 17-year-old has called the Royal Children’s Hospital home, never venturing more than two blocks from its grounds.
But his passion for the Cats inspired those around him, and the hospital banded together with a team of people from across Victoria to get Angus and his two artificial hearts to last night’s AFL match against the Western Bulldogs, at Marvel Stadium.
His proud dad, Jeremy, looked on as his son watched the game he has dreamt of attending, taking in the roar of the crowd, the sea of blue and white, the thrill of every Geelong goal.
“It’s everything we wanted it to be,” he said. “We really needed this.”
For 243 days, Angus’s life has revolved around his Berlin Heart. It will stay that way until he can get treatment, which could include a heart transplant.
Wherever Angus goes, his two artificial hearts follow.
No patient had ever left an Australian hospital with a Berlin Heart, and the RCH has only been able to find one other hospital in the world that allows this to happen.
But this is the incredible story of a boy who won’t give up, a hospital that dares to dream and a night at the footy unlike any other. And equipped with his 10-hour battery, the impossible dream became a never-to-be forgotten reality.
When RCH chief executive Bernadette McDonald broke the news to Angus on Thursday that he could go, Angus said he was shocked.
He was in the rooms before the game to meet his Cats heroes, and was warmly embraced. Geelong’s acting captain Tom Stewart summed up the feelings of all the players: “If this isn’t the epitomy of bravery, I don’t know what is.”
And after the team’s warm-up on the ground, it was Angus’s turn to welcome the Geelong boys back to the room.
He lined up on the players’ race, eyes shining as he looked up at the wall of people surrounding him, their cheers echoing around the stadium as the Cats ran back past him to their rooms. Mum Jennifer said she hadn’t seen him smile like that “since before we came in to hospital”.
Under the watchful eye of cardiac nurse practitioner Caitlin Elliott, and with his proud parents by his side, Angus then made his way to the box seats reserved especially for him and his family.
A look of awe on his face as he took in the view, he settled into his seat, joking “I could get used to this”, and before long was cheering on as the game got under way.
His mum smiled as she watched her son applaud the team the Royal Children’s Hospital moved heaven and earth for him to see. “It’s simple,” Jennifer said. “When he’s happy, I’m happy.”
The night had been a long time coming, especially for a teenager who didn’t think he would still be in hospital. When he arrived at the RCH on October 3 – less than two weeks after watching the Cats win the grand final – Angus and his mum thought the visit would last two weeks. He was born with a heart condition called aortic stenosis and needed an aortic valve replacement.
“So, I just thought ‘We’re going to get a nice new valve and then go on home’,” she said. “But his heart had other ideas.”
Jennifer said “something didn’t look right” to the specialists and Angus went in for a second operation a couple of days later.
“The operation went well, he was back in the PICU (paediatric intensive care unit). Then, about an hour later, he went into cardiac arrest.”
Doctors performed open-heart massage – a resuscitation technique where clinicians pump a person’s heart in their hands – to save Angus, and he was rushed into emergency surgery.
“He was a very, very, very, very, very sick boy,” she said. “It was terrible, so unexpected.”
Angus was placed on life support and spent three weeks in an induced coma before finally waking up – and learning he needed the artificial heart and could not leave hospital for the foreseeable future.
Jennifer said she had stayed on Koala Ward with him ever since he was moved there, after nine weeks in intensive care.
“It’s been really, really tough – we just had to put our lives on hold,” she said. “We’ve been living in a very isolated world.”
But through it all, she has remained in awe of her son’s strength.
“He’s just got this different perspective and this wisdom,” she said. “He’s a really determined kid. I’m so proud.”
Angus is studying two VCE subjects, attending school – and even his formal – via what can best be described as a computer screen on wheels.
“He’s doing really well,” she said.
“His teacher the other day said, ‘You’re doing more than what the kids here are doing’.”
She said the nurses had become like his sisters, and Angus had become known on the ward for his love of music – the Sex Pistols and Pink Floyd are his favourites – and, of course, Geelong.
“He’s got his vinyl record collection in here now,” Jennifer said. “We got special permission for that. The doctors bring in their favourite vinyl records as well. It’s like his little meeting place.”
RCH director of cardiology Michael Cheung said that as Angus grew stronger, they became determined to find a way to safely let him out of the hospital.
“We’re just trying to make life as normal as possible for him, and we know that going to the football was something that was very important for him,” Prof Cheung said.
“That’s our job, I think, to make kids feel as strong and empowered as possible.
“He’s doing incredibly well, he’s such a strong kid.”
Angus runs a footy-tipping competition for patients and staff on the ward, tracking the weekly results on the door outside his room, complete with photos of the Geelong mascot. Unknown to Angus, his love of footy had spread, and people were determined to help him get to a game.
There were the obvious helpers: the Geelong team, who welcomed him in the changerooms, the AFL, Marvel Stadium and Ambulance Victoria, who rostered on two extra drivers.
But there were also a number of anonymous and unexpected people behind the scenes, who did everything they could to help a boy they had never met.
As the final siren rang out across the stands, with the Cats winners by 22 points, the box burst into cheers and Angus’ dream night ended with the fairytale finish he deserved.
Angus couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.
“It was amazing,” he said.
His mum – who had told the Geelong players at the start of the game last year’s Grand Final was “the best moment of Angus’ life” put it in simple words: “This is Angus’ Grand Final.”
Originally published in the Herald Sun, Sunday, 5th, June, 2023
Words: Sarah Booth
Pictures: Ian Currie
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