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Story of Corkman's 1998 dash to London for heart and lung transplant told in documentary

Irish Examiner logo Irish Examiner 26/11/2022 Olivia Kelleher

The story of the Corkman who made national headlines in 1998 following a heart and lung transplant operation which involved a race against the clock and a ‘mercy dash’ to London on the Government jet, is to be told in a documentary on Newstalk tomorrow. 

Dermot Fenton from Glenville passed away aged 41 in January 2016, 17 years after he had the double operation. Following his operation, he opened a dog kennel business, played golf several times a week, and enjoyed the odd pint or two in his local pub.

The 24-year-old cystic fibrosis sufferer Dermot Fenton sitting up in Harefield Hospital, London, after a then rare heart and lung transplant after being rushed there from Cork on the government jet. File picture: Michael Crabtree/PA © Provided by Irish Examiner The 24-year-old cystic fibrosis sufferer Dermot Fenton sitting up in Harefield Hospital, London, after a then rare heart and lung transplant after being rushed there from Cork on the government jet. File picture: Michael Crabtree/PA The 24-year-old cystic fibrosis sufferer Dermot Fenton sitting up in Harefield Hospital, London, after a then rare heart and lung transplant after being rushed there from Cork on the government jet. File picture: Michael Crabtree/PA

Narrated by his brother Pio, the documentary, A Man from Cork, details the medical challenges Dermot faced with cystic fibrosis, his enduring spirit and sense of humour and the life-altering impact his transplant would have for two other families that fateful night in 1998.

Pio Fenton told the Anton Savage Show, on Newstalk, that he vividly remembers the beeper Dermot kept with him at all times going off in November 1998. It was the Royal Brompton and Harefield Trust who told Dermot at 7.30pm that a transplant was available. However, he big obstacle was that he had to be in London by 11pm.

Pio said Dermot, who was born in 1974, had a "difficult childhood" as treatment for cystic fibrosis wasn't as advanced as it is now. As a child, he spent much of his time in and out of hospital.

Dermot Fenton had a great sense of humour and got a laugh out of hospital staff by requesting a pint of stout after his heart and lung transplant surgery, and happily posed with pints for the 'Irish Examiner' photographer back home in Glenville, Co Cork. Picture: Richard Mills © Provided by Irish Examiner Dermot Fenton had a great sense of humour and got a laugh out of hospital staff by requesting a pint of stout after his heart and lung transplant surgery, and happily posed with pints for the 'Irish Examiner' photographer back home in Glenville, Co Cork. Picture: Richard Mills Dermot Fenton had a great sense of humour and got a laugh out of hospital staff by requesting a pint of stout after his heart and lung transplant surgery, and happily posed with pints for the 'Irish Examiner' photographer back home in Glenville, Co Cork. Picture: Richard Mills

“He persevered and despite challenges got on with it. We grew up on a farm, he tended to engage with it in the same way as the rest of his brothers and sisters.” 

However, by the time Dermot had reached 23, he was placed on oxygen as his quality of life had deteriorated hugely. Doctors told the family that Dermot urgently required a lung and heart transplant. The Irish health service did not have the capacity for such an operation. Dermot was placed on a waiting list in London.

Pio said that in November 1998, the bleeper went off and Dermot was told to "try to be in London by 11pm".

“This was 7.30pm in the evening and getting from our house — which was in the countryside — even to Cork city was a bit of a struggle at times.” 

The frazzled Fenton family called all of the airlines but got through to answering machine after answering machine.

Fortunately, there was one plane that was flying out of Ireland that night that was able to help them — the Government jet.

The jet was due to travel to Brussels. However, then Fianna Fáil consumer affairs minister, Tom Kitt, allowed Dermot to board so they could make a slight diversion to London to drop him off to the hospital.

“He went into the operation around midnight, he was out by 8.30 the next morning,” Pio said.

Dermot Fenton was always grateful for his life-saving transplants and was at Douglas Court Shopping Centre, Cork, in 2007 to launch an organ donation campaign for the Cystic Fibrosis Association. File Picture: Neil Danton © Provided by Irish Examiner Dermot Fenton was always grateful for his life-saving transplants and was at Douglas Court Shopping Centre, Cork, in 2007 to launch an organ donation campaign for the Cystic Fibrosis Association. File Picture: Neil Danton Dermot Fenton was always grateful for his life-saving transplants and was at Douglas Court Shopping Centre, Cork, in 2007 to launch an organ donation campaign for the Cystic Fibrosis Association. File Picture: Neil Danton

He said that his brother had a 'domino transplant' which involves organs being transferred between multiple patients.

“Some poor chap who had died — whose heart and lungs were going to be transplanted into my brother. Because at that stage my brother’s heart was reasonably fine, it was transplanted from him into someone else. So, all of this was happening in the one operating theatre.

"He (Dermot) came out of it very well and recovered very quickly, had that pink glow to his skin very quickly."

Pio said Dermot asked for a pint of Guinness after surgery. Of course, it was a non-runner but the nurse to whom he made the request got a good laugh out of his handwritten note. Before long he was down in the hospital gym working on his recovery.

Dermot Fenton enjoyed many years of extra life thanks to his transplant. He is photographed here in 2002 with his Yorkshire terrier Jeff at home in Glenville, Co Cork. Irish Examiner Picture: Denis Minihane © Provided by Irish Examiner Dermot Fenton enjoyed many years of extra life thanks to his transplant. He is photographed here in 2002 with his Yorkshire terrier Jeff at home in Glenville, Co Cork. Irish Examiner Picture: Denis Minihane Dermot Fenton enjoyed many years of extra life thanks to his transplant. He is photographed here in 2002 with his Yorkshire terrier Jeff at home in Glenville, Co Cork. Irish Examiner Picture: Denis Minihane

Whilst in the gym Dermot got chatting to another transplant patient who, it turns out, had received his heart.

“Thankfully, she’s still alive, 24 years later — so it’s quite fascinating," Pio says. 

“It’s a comfort to us at this stage to know that some aspect of him is still walking the earth. It’s always great to talk about my brother because he was full of life and getting to do so is always enjoyable.” 

A Man from Cork will premiere on Newstalk on Sunday at 7am and will be repeated on December 3 at 9pm. It will also be available as a podcast on GoLoud and all major podcast platforms.

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