A VERY special group of people who are only alive because of the generosity of others have celebrated the achievements of a North-East heart transplant centre,

In a poignant gesture, more than 30 heart transplant patients, from all over the UK and Ireland, released 100 red balloons containing heartfelt messages of thanks to their donor.

Patients, family members and friends took part in the mass balloon release on Monday (September), to mark the fact that more than 100 adults with congenital heart disease have received a new heart at the Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle, since the first such transplant in 1988.

Loading article content

Just before the balloons were released Lynne Holt, clinical transplant coordinator, told the crowd: “The messages are also for the brave people who came through our doors and who are not with us any more.”

Natasha Whitfield, 27, from Darlington, who received a new heart in May 2008, was born with a condition which meant the main arteries in her heart were the wrong way around.

Miss Whitfield had surgery when she was 16 but four years later she became so ill she was told she needed a heart transplant .

Following a five-hour operation, Miss Whitfield said she was able to feel her heart beating properly for the first time.

“Since that time I have been absolutely fine. I can now do anything I want,” she added.

Her parents, Gill and Tony and older sister Emma are thrilled with her progress.

She added: “I have just finished my Master’s degree in library and information management.

“Today is really all about the donors."

Chris Leitch, 29, from Chester-le-Street, was also born with transposed coronary arteries and was told he would not survive without a new heart.

He said he could feel the difference as soon as he woke up after surgery.

Mr Leitch, who has a partner – Lynsey – and a little boy, Kieran, five, and another baby on the way, said: “I feel really grateful to my donors. All I know is that he was a lad from Hartlepool."

Nicole Graham, 23, from Consett, who had her transplant in February 2013, remembers she was unable to walk more than a few steps before the transplant which saved her life.

“I am so grateful to the donor,” she added.