Bronco and State of Origin star Gavin Allen needs a heart transplant and is being kept alive by an electrical pump in his chest. Picture: Bruce Long
Bronco and State of Origin star Gavin Allen needs a heart transplant and is being kept alive by an electrical pump in his chest. Picture: Bruce Long

Origin star in fight of his life

FORMER Queensland State of Origin star Gavin Allen needs a heart transplant, and is currently being kept alive by an electric pump implanted in his chest.

When the Maroons gathered in camp this week for Origin I, familiar faces Cameron Smith, Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Cooper Cronk were missing.

So, too, was long-time team manager Allen, who has spent most of the year in hospital, including three weeks in intensive care, after surgery to install an artificial heart known as a Ventricular Assistance Device to keep him alive.

Gavin Allen during a State of Origin match in 1995.
Gavin Allen during a State of Origin match in 1995.

Allen played in the Broncos' 1992 premiership team as well as Queensland's unforgettable 1995 Origin series clean-sweep.

Few played rugby league with more heart than Allen, now, ironically, it is his heart that has handed him his hardest battle.

Allen has familial cardiomyopathy, a hereditary condition where the heart increases in size, leading to abnormal heart function, progressive deterioration and ultimately failure.

He is now under the care of the Advanced Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplantation Service team led by Dr George Javorsky at Brisbane's Prince Charles Hospital, while he awaits a donor heart.

His father Don, now 85, had the same condition and underwent a successful transplant 27 years ago.

Allen was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy about 18 months after playing his last season of league with the London Broncos in 1996, and has been on medication to maintain his heart ever since.

"I never thought it was something I would have. I actually thought I always had asthma," Allen told The Sunday Mail.

"The biggest reason why I retired wasn't because I stopped liking the game. It was just the training. I hated it, couldn't stand it, because it just hurt all the time."

As a professional footballer, Allen maintained a healthy lifestyle, but after his diagnosis he gave away alcohol to give his body the best chance of dealing with the condition.

Gavin Allen wearing the electric around his waist that is keeping him alive. Picture: Bruce Long
Gavin Allen wearing the electric around his waist that is keeping him alive. Picture: Bruce Long

But two years ago the effectiveness of the medication began to wear off and Allen, without even knowing it, was getting ready to die.

"I must have had a feeling, because I painted the house inside and out, fixed everything up around the place, restructured a few things at work, sold a few properties to tie up ends," he said.

"This was all before I knew, so I must have just had this feeling. It was a weird thing.

"It wasn't until November of last year where I was really struggling to even walk up the stairs."

After a Christmas holiday in his home town of Cairns to try to rest, the 53-year-old was booked in for a "transplant work-up" on January 29 to begin testing to see if he could have a donor heart.

"I went home and a few weeks later, I just felt myself getting worse and worse," he said. "I just got in the car and drove myself to the hospital and parked in the carpark. I had to stop four times to get to the front counter.

"George walked past and saw me, and said 'don't worry about reception, just come straight with me right now'. He was shocked looking at me. I told him I came in because I didn't think I would last until the end of January."

Complications, including bleeding from the operation to insert the VAD, a blood infection and a reaction to the antibiotics, have slowed Allen's recovery as he gradually regains the strength and energy he will need for the transplant procedure.

"I spent three weeks in intensive care … I have never done anything that tough in all my life," he said. "Kristina and the kids would come up to visit me, and they would be talking and I just couldn't say a word out of my mouth."

Gavin Allen and his family want to rsie awareness of the importance of organ donation. Picture: Bruce Long
Gavin Allen and his family want to rsie awareness of the importance of organ donation. Picture: Bruce Long

Allen is an intensely private person and was reluctant to go public with his health battle.

But former Queensland teammates Allan Langer and Trevor Gillmeister urged Allen to tell his story to The Sunday Mail to raise awareness of the importance of organ donation.

"The staff here at the Prince Charles Hospital have just been outstanding. I can't speak highly enough of them," he said. "Everything is so positive, and they could not be more supportive of everyone in here.

"The work they do is amazing, so I thought, if my story just gets people talking about organ donation and makes their jobs a bit easier, then it is worthwhile doing.

"Having seen Dad go through it makes it so much easier, because I know the difference it made to his life.

"There's no stress from me at all. I feel so much better with the pump in now, much better than I did before, and I will feel better again when the transplant is done, whenever that may be.

"I am actually enjoying feeling not too bad, because I felt like crap for such a long time."

MAKE TIME TO HAVE DONOR CONVERSATION

ONE of Queensland's leading heart transplant specialists says the simple art of conversation is the key to increasing organ donation rates in Australia.

Last year 105 Queenslanders donated their organs after death, saving the life of nearly 300 Australians.

The average waiting time for a heart transplant is currently about six months.

Dr George Javorsky is director of the Advanced Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplantation Service at the Prince Charles Hospital, and says potential organ donors need to ensure their loved ones know about their decision to give the gift of life.

"The challenge in Australia is, because we have only 25 million people, we see about 80-100 hearts per year for the whole country," Dr Javorsky said. "Compare that to the United States, where they have a population of about 350 million, they will see about 2500 hearts per year. In Australia we still have more patients needing transplants than we have donors and the waiting times for a suitable organ to become available are unpredictable.

"The No. 1 thing is for people who want to donate organs is have a conversation with their families. The next time people have a family get together, or a Sunday night dinner, they should just let everyone know what their intentions are.

"After that, they just have to go on to the website and register. But the conversation is so important because even if a person dies, the family can still say 'we don't want to do that'.

"When a family is in grief and in the intensive care unit of a hospital, they can say: 'Yes, we have had the conversation, we understand that this is their wishes, and we are supportive of making sure their wishes are fulfilled'."

The option to register organ donation on a person's driver's licence was abolished more than 12 years ago in favour of a national register that can be done online in two minutes.

To register, go to donatelife.gov.au