Story by Claire Elliot
BRAVE David Saunders has been given a new lease of life after surgeons rebuilt his heart - using Gore-tex pipes.
The teenager, who suffers from a rare congenital defect, had the ground-breaking eight-hour surgery just days before his 16th birthday.
The plastic material, more commonly used to make raincoats, has been implanted to allow his heart to effectively pump blood around his body.
It means he should never need a heart and lung transplant - a worry his parents, Alison and Dave, have carried since their son was just 12 weeks old.
And remarkably, just three months after the life-saving open heart procedure, David, from Fort Augustus, Inverness-shire, is able to bike, run and play team sports with his friends, something, which until now, has proved almost impossible for him to do.
“I got really tired before and breathless, having to stop for a long time to catch my breath,” he said.
“That was normal for most of my life but earlier this year I started to notice I was getting tired a lot quicker and I felt I was starting to slow down.
“But since the operation, I definitely feel a lot better.
“I did PE for the first time this term the other day and usually I would only last about five minutes but now I can last much longer.
“I can run for a lot longer and climb the hill behind our house. I can also play basketball. I never used to do that because I couldn’t last for more than a few minutes.”
David, who has only just returned to school full-time after an eight-week recovery period, also likes kayaking, hill walking and mountain biking.
His proud dad said getting his son to 16 was “an amazing thing” and that he was finally able to do “the lad and dad thing”.
“It’s what every father wants for their son. And I’ve been given a son home from hospital who is now able to do all these things, challenge me and beat me. It’s amazing. I am so proud of him.”
David was born with truncus arteriosus, which meant his two main arteries, the aorta, which carries oxygenated blood to the body, and the pulmonary artery, which carries deoxygenated blood to the lungs, did not divide.
This left his heart pumping a high pressure flow of the blood to his lungs, causing them to haemorrhage.
He also suffered from significant narrowing of the pulmonary artery.
To correct the problem and separate the two arteries, he had his first open heart surgery when he was just 12 weeks old, which involved inserting a donor heart valve.
Since then he has endured several operations throughout his life, as surgeons battled to keep the heart working.
Doctors, however, decided earlier this year that he needed a second open heart surgery to save his life as he had outgrown the donor valve he received as a baby.
That surgery went ahead at Glasgow’s Yorkhill Children’s Hospital on August 4 - just seven days before his 16th birthday.
Surgeons implanted two Gore-tex devices - one from his right ventricle to the pulmonary artery and another connecting the pulmonary trunk to his right pulmonary artery, one of which contains a replacement pulmonary valve.
He has been told this should last for 15 years or more, after which surgeons will be able to repair any damage through the arteries in his leg.
David, who was remarkably out of intensive care in less than 24 hours and home within a week, said: “I always knew I had a problem with my heart but I was never told how serious it was.
“My parents didn’t want to worry me. I only found out I would have needed a transplant the day before the operation and I’m glad because then I didn’t need it any more.”
His proud dad, an outdoor pursuits instructor, said: “We are very lucky David was born when he was because at every point there has been a technological improvement which has allowed him to move on.
“These Gore-tex devices now means he won’t have to have open heart surgery again and the likelihood is that he won’t need a transplant, which has been hanging over us for the past 16 years.
“It’s incredible because we’ve had to worry all through his life and every time he went in for surgery we were told the risks that our child might die.
“So getting our son to 16 years old was an amazing thing.
“He’s an absolute fighter. And between March and his latest surgery in August he sat his standard grade exams and got excellent marks. The fact he was able to sit them and get those results is just amazing,
“And at his school dance recently he danced every single dance. He’s never been able to do these things before. Now’s he’s gaining strength and he’s got a heart that can do it.”
But Mr Saunders explained it was only by chance that his son, who has an additional flap on his aortic valve, making it appear like a lucky four-leaf clover, is alive today after it took almost three months to persuade local GPs there was a real problem.
His parents knew within a week there was something seriously wrong with him as he would gasp for breath after every mouthful of milk.
Doctors initially said his mother’s milk was inadequate because she was a vegetarian and then they were then told he had colic.
Eventually they were referred to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, where doctors identified he had a heart murmur and sent him home.
But on the way out the hospital door, a doctor, on his way to his retirement lunch, stopped to speak to them and asked to examine David.
Mr Saunders said: “The very last thing that man did in his health career was save our son’s life. He’s our hero.
“After listening to his heart, he admitted David to hospital and said he was very ill.
“He was transferred to Edinburgh three days later and had his first open heart surgery.
“If we had been 30 seconds earlier or later going out that door we would have missed him and David would have died.
“We were told by the doctor in Edinburgh that our son didn’t have three weeks left in him because his lungs were starting to haemorrhage and his condition would have been inoperable.”
His mum Alison, who is also mum to Tony, 29, Jessie, 27, and Millie 11, said it had still not properly sunk in that her son should no longer need a transplant.
“All through his life we’ve been desperate for him to get to his next birthday. We had a massive party when he was 10 because it was a massive thing and now getting to 16 is just fantastic,” she said.
“We are trying to give him space but when you close you eyes you are straight back to what he was like in intensive care. Then this bounding teenage boy comes in the door and that’s wiped away.
“We all went out the other day for a bike ride and David and his dad took the hard route and me and Millie took the easy route.
“He’s never been able to do as much as other kids, like playing hide and seek because when the other kids were legging it back to the den he’d get left behind.
“But the other night he was out, dressed to the nines, with his hair done, aftershave on, and he came home after playing hide and seek with his friends. We were laughing our heads off but this is all new to him.
“It’s given him a new lease of life.”
David now plans to study medicine when he leaves school in the hope of helping others like himself.
The teenager, who plays violin in the Highland String Orchestra and fiddle in a ceilidh band, has also been accepted to take part in an exchange trip to Holland next March, which will be his first trip abroad.
In photo is David Saunders with his dad Dave.
David Saunders in intensive care following his pioneering eight-hour operation