Couple who had heart and lung transplants felt ‘unspoken connection’ when they first met

Athletes Wendy and Richard Caulkin share 26 medals. But the golden couple’s finest moment at the British Transplant Games wasn’t racing to victory on the track. It was finding each other.

The pair met at the event nine years ago, having both received life-saving transplants in the nick of time.

Wendy was given a heart, while Richard got a new pair of lungs.

They became friends after meeting at the opening ceremony, bonding over their similar experiences before embarking on a whirlwind romance.

Just three months after their first date Richard, 41, popped the question to Wendy on her birthday on Tynemouth Beach, Tyne & Wear – the first place each of them went after they were discharged after surgery.

Wendy, 43, said: “When we hugged I could feel Richard’s heart beating out of his chest. Then he got down on one knee and wrote in the sand, Will you marry me? It felt right. When you have stared death in the face and waited so long to live your life, you realise there’s no point wasting time.”

Wendy developed cardiomyopathy – a disease that affects the walls of the heart, preventing it from pumping properly – while she was pregnant with her son Joshua. She was just 23.

Life got tougher after Wendy’s first marriage ended, leaving her struggling as a single parent as her condition deteriorated.

“It got so bad I could barely get out of bed,” she said. “I taught my son CPR. I didn’t want to scare him but if anything happened to me, I couldn’t bear the thought of him finding me and not knowing what to do.”

Surgeons tried to improve Wendy’s heart function but she suffered a cardiac arrest on the operating table and was placed on the emergency transplant list in 2011.

“They said if I went home to look after my son, I wouldn’t have long left,” said Wendy, who waited just three weeks for a donor heart.

After her transplant she was rushed back into theatre with internal bleeding that left her in a coma. She needed a balloon pump to assist her new heart as it wasn’t beating hard enough.

She also suffered renal failure and temporarily lost her hearing.

After three months in intensive care, she had to learn to walk again as her muscles had wasted.

“They weren’t sure I would pull through,” she said. “I didn’t see my son for two months. It was such a relief to hold him again.”

Two years later, Wendy met Richard at her first Transplant Games in Sheffield, where he cheered her to a cycling silver.

Richard had cystic fibrosis and suffered a bacterial infection at university that damaged his lungs so badly he could not work.

He threw himself into his studies, earning a PhD, but his health declined until he could only walk five steps before collapsing exhausted.

Richard said: “It was scary. My lung function was down to 4%. I was pretty much bedbound on a ventilator for a year. I’m not sure how I got through.”

Richard was called to hospital for a transplant nine times, only to find donor organs were not suitable. “Each time I had to come home and pick myself up,” he said. “Not everyone gets a transplant. It reached the point where I couldn’t take the disappointment any more. I decided if the next one didn’t work, I’d come off the list.”

It was tenth time lucky as Richard got his transplant lungs in December 2009. When the pair met, they bonded over their similar experiences. Richard said: “We had an unspoken connection. We spent every minute we could together.”

They married in January 2016, six months after Richard proposed.

They posed for a wedding photo with transplant co-ordinator Liz Holte, who supported them through their surgeries, and friends who also had donor organs.

Wendy said: “If it wasn’t for them, the new life we were starting together wouldn’t have been possible. Our first dance was to Take That, as it was the first concert we went to. I had never been well enough to go to one before.”

Richard said: “After all those years of missing out, they had to turn the music off at 1am and kick us off the dancefloor. It was perfect.”

Wendy is now training as a nurse, while Richard is a research and development scientist.

The couple, from York, remain regular comp­­etitors at the Transplant Games, though the event was can­­celled for two years in the pandemic to pro­­tect the immuno-supressed athletes. It is being held in Leeds now, with Wendy taking part in the 3km mini- marathon and 5km cycling time trial.

Richard is competing in the 10km cycling road race, 5km cycling time trial, and athletics 100m and 200m.

He said: “It is more than a sporting competition, it is an emotional celebration of the gift of life that we have been given by our donors, their families and the medical teams.”