Earlier this year, Alison Gray became a British gold and silver medallist.
The 49-year-old triumphed in bowls and finished runner up in golf at the British Transplant Games held in Coventry – just a year after receiving a heart transplant.
It was a happy, if very unexpected, conclusion to a tumultuous time in the life of the woman from Dunshalt, Fife.
One morning in 2007, Alison went for her daily swim when she sank to the bottom of the pool. The next day it happened again.
“I felt rubbish,” she said. “I couldn’t place my finger on it. Something was wrong. I was struggling to sleep.
“I went to the doctor and said it felt as though something was strangling me. I couldn’t breathe.”
Alison left the doctor with a diagnosis of panic attacks and advice to breathe into a paper bag.
When her symptoms worsened, she went back to her GP who gave her an inhaler for asthma.
She returned a week later and was sent for a chest X-ray which showed she had an enlarged heart.
She said: “I had never considered it was my heart. That just floored me.”
‘I felt them cutting me open’
Two weeks later, she went to Queen Margaret Hospital in Dunfermline for routine tests and an electrocardiogram (ECG).
When she told the doctor that she and her husband were trying for a baby, it was revealed that it was too risky.
“I said I was trying to have a baby and was told I wouldn’t survive. My heart was barely keeping me alive,” she said.
“It was a double whammy – major heart problem and couldn’t have children. It was a lot to take in.”
In February 2008, Alison was given a defibrillator.
“It was not a good experience,” she said.
“The anaesthetic hadn’t fully taken effect. I felt them cutting me open.”
Alison was then given more anaesthetic and does not remember the rest. Her recovery was quick, only having her left arm in a sling for a few weeks for suspected nerve damage.
But by summer, her tiredness and breathlessness had returned and she was struggling to walk her dog.
It was decided that her defibrillator would be upgraded to a pacemaker to help her heart pump more efficiently.
In September 2008, she went to the Golden Jubilee National Hospital in Glasgow for the operation.
Saved by her dog
After a brief stay in hospital, Alison returned home determined to get her life back on track with her new pacemaker.
“My golden lab Kola was my inspiration,” said Alison.
“There were days where it would have been easy to stay in bed and sleep all day.
“Kola made me get out of bed. She was a young dog full of energy and wanted to go for a walk.
“She saved me. She made me get up every day and walk – without her I don’t know where I’d be today.”
A few months later, once her pacemaker felt normal, Alison took up golf with her husband and lawn bowls at Dalgety Bay Bowling Club.
She said: “It gave me something to focus on. It made me forget about my heart failure and feel normal.”
The 2020 pandemic left Alison feeling “scared” so she stayed away from people and took up cycling. By this time, the pair had moved from Dalgety Bay to Dunshalt.
Devastation hit in May when Kola died a month before her 15th birthday. In February 2021, the pair decided to get another puppy named Marley.
Defibrillator fired again
After falling seriously ill with Covid in October 2021, Alison was given a check up at the Golden Jubilee.
She stayed in the hotel connected to the hospital and after the tests, she went for a swim in the hotel pool.
But after a couple of lengths, each stroke grew harder.
Alison said: “I didn’t feel right. Then my defibrillator fired.
“Thankfully I was not knocked out as I was in the pool. It was like an almighty bang – an explosion – and I screamed.
“I felt like a lightening bolt [was] coming out of my body.”
After pool staff contacted the transplant ward and Alison was checked over, she was sent back to her hotel room.
More tests followed the next day and then she was sent home. On Saturday February 5 2022, on her dog’s first birthday, Alison’s defibrillator fired again.
“I shouted for my husband. I knew the defibrillator had fired and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I sat in a seat and felt a bang.
“I screamed. It’s really sore. The nurses said it’s like a horse kick to the chest and that’s how I’d describe it.”
‘I remember thinking I couldn’t live my life in a hospital bed’
Her husband rushed her to Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy where the defibrillator fired twice, and she was blue-lighted to the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh.
“Each time it goes off it’s worse,” she said. “You can feel it coming and can’t stop it. You feel helpless.”
Alison was then transferred to the Golden Jubilee, where she was told she needed a heart transplant.
“That was hard to take,” said Alison. “I had a healthy life doing bowls, biking, golf, walking the dog.
“I didn’t think it would come to this.”
Alison was added to the transplant list – but blood tests revealed her kidneys were failing, meaning and she would have to stay in hospital until they had a heart for her.
Alison said: “I thought ‘I can’t do this’. I have a husband and a puppy at home who need me.
“I spoke to a gentleman who was on the list for six years with no heart.
“I remember thinking I couldn’t live my life in a hospital bed.
“That’s not the way I want to go.”
Alison’s heart transplant
The following morning, the nurse told Alison they had a heart for her.
“I thought she was joking. I was only on the list last night,” she said.
She recalls how cold the theatre room felt and closing her eyes to try to block out her surroundings.
“It felt like forever. Hours and hours. I tried to sleep.
“The next thing I remember is people shouting my name and trying to wake me up.”
She added: “I just remember doctors and nurses round the bed and I said ‘Am I dead?’ and they said ‘No, you’re alive’ and I went ‘Oh, I thought I was dreaming’.”
Alison had to learn to walk again as she had lost muscle in her leg and her physio began two days after having the operation.
British Transplant Games
After a three week stay in hospital, she returned home.
Within 12 weeks, she had returned to playing golf.
Marley was another huge part of her journey, with Alison describing him as “the inspiration to get up in the morning and do something”.
Alison’s turning point was a ski holiday to Austria, which she described as helping her feel “back to normal”.
Her final goal was competing in the British Transplant Games and although an infection prevented this in 2022, the year of her operation, Alison went on to win two medals at this year’s games in July.
Held in Coventry, Alison claimed a gold medal for bowls and a silver for golf.
“I was gobsmacked when they called my name out,” she said. “I was absolutely delighted.
“I expected to suffer for months so it felt really good.
“I didn’t know if I’d play golf or bowls again after my operation.”
Alison plans to continue competing in and promoting the British Transplant Games, adding: “It’s a life changing experience. It’s a big family you’ve never met.
“I want to make people aware of the organisation and what good they do.
“I don’t know what I’d have done if the transplant didn’t come. It gives people hope.
“It was a second chance in life to do something I couldn’t think of doing.
“I feel like I’ve proven I can lead a normal life.”