The 20-year-old student, who has cystic fibrosis, had no energy and was on oxygen around the clock before her groundbreaking operation in recent months at the Mater Hospital in Dublin.
Her donor lungs were reconditioned before being successfully transplanted to improve the quality of the organ — a process that also allows previously unsuitable organs to be made safe for transplant.
“I was quite sick before the operation. I always wanted to go out for a walk but my energy levels were not the best. I was not the girl I used to be,” she said. Her health plummeted when she was 16, affecting her schoolwork and participation in activities — she had to drop out of college two years ago.
“I loved running. I can run now. I actually chased my younger sister up the street the other day,” she says.
Leigh, who said she thinks about her donor every day, is planning to take part in a 10k run next month in aid of Cystic Fibrosis Ireland.
“I will complete the last 2k but to be able to say I can take part is wonderful because I stood at the end of the run last year with oxygen on my back.”
Leigh also plans to complete an avant-garde makeup course. She wants to become a theatrical makeup artist one day. She waited just eight and a half weeks for the transplant. She had thought it would take longer and had not even a bag packed when she got the call from the hospital.
“I was able to get out of bed just four days after the procedure and was out of hospital in three and a half weeks.
“Initially, I was cautious when I heard the lungs I would be receiving would be undergoing a treatment to restore them but once the process was explained to me and I could see it for myself, I immediately felt at ease.”
The lung treatment technique is known as ex-vivo lung perfusion transplantation. It takes about four hours to complete in an operation theatre before transplantation. The conversion rate of lungs that are successfully reconditioned and transplanted following the treatment is at least 50%.
It means that for every two organ donors currently deemed unsuitable for lung transplant this process can restore the lungs of one organ donor for lung transplant, dramatically increasing the size of the current donor pool.
Leigh’s double lung transplant was led by consultant thoracic and lung transplant surgeon Karen Redmond who described it as a hugely significant milestone in the history of the Mater’s transplant programme.
“We want to convert every donor offer because it gives a lot of solace to the family as well as giving a life-saving operation to somebody,” she said. She said there were about 30 people on the waiting list and there were a lot more people who should be considered for transplant.
“We feel we have the ability and we definitely have the expertise to do more. It is phenomenal when you sit down with your transplant recipients afterwards and realise how much of a difference it makes. It is a lovely feeling to see people getting on with their lives.”