Cape theatre veteran bounces back after heart transplant
Celebrated set designer Saul Radomsky has had many glittering theatrical milestones, but he says having a new heart beats them all
Veteran set designer Saul Radomsky, 76, recently received a lifetime achievement award for his theatre work, but for him his greatest gift has been a heart transplant that gave him a second lease of life.
Radomsky was one of 26 leading theatre practitioners who were applauded for their acting, directing, staging and technical abilities at the 54th annual Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards in March. He had won four different Fleur du Cap awards previously.
Radomsky’s work was recently seen in the set he created for David Kramer’s Langarm. The musical, which played the Fugard Theatre late in 2018, is the story of an interracial love affair in apartheid SA and set in 1960s ballroom culture.
But 11 years ago Radomsky was almost on his death bed and left with only 20% functionality in his heart. A transplant turned his life around, returning him to the productive creative he once was.
“I could barely walk. I would only walk a couple of metres before I got tired, or risk collapsing if I pushed myself. My doctors told me that I needed a heart transplant fast or I would die. I had to wait for the entire year before I got that call to urgently come to the hospital and have the transplant,” he recalled.
Radomsky – who had been in SA for four years following his return from London, where he learnt about theatre design and sets – said his ischemic heart and heart aneurysm resurfaced.
“My cardiologist said the triple bypass that I had while I lived in London was no longer effective and I needed a new heart,” he said.
He still remembers the day he got the call from his medical team as if it were yesterday. It was just before Christmas in 2007.
“It was the opening night of a musical that I was part of, The Kramer Petersen Songbook (a tribute to Cape Town playwright Taliep Petersen). My doctor called me, saying they had the heart, which I had been waiting for for a year. I still asked him if I could go to the opening night first and then come later. He said you have to be here within an hour as the heart would be useless after four hours of being harvested.”
After more than eight hours under the knife, Radomsky’s transplant was declared “successful”, and his life has never been better.
“After a recovery period of six weeks I had so much energy that I could even go to the gym. I regained my life, and over the last 11 years I’ve been doing everything that I could do before my heart problems. I live life to the fullest and I’m so passionate about what I do that I will probably die on the job,” he said.
Since his transplant Radomsky has worked on 12 productions, which he considers too few. When he is not creating a magical atmosphere in theatre, he is contributing to the arts and giving back to the community by teaching and sharing his knowledge of theatre and scenography with art students.
Dr Willie Koen, the head of the transplant programme at Netcare Christiaan Barnard Hospital who operated on Radomsky, said his case was one of many encouraging stories of organ transplantation.
“This shows the importance of organ donation and the impact organ transplant has in prolonging the lives of people that otherwise would die if they don’t get an organ transplant. Had someone or the family not donated the heart at that time, Mr Radomsky would probably not have made it. His heart condition was so bad at the time that he could drop dead any time,” he said.
Koen raised concerns about the slow rate of organ donation in SA, which had remained “stagnant in the past 30 years”. The country only performed about 30 heart transplants a year.
While the country is a world leader in the field of organ transplantation, the number of patients waiting for transplants continues to increase. There are about 4,300 SA adults and children awaiting lifesaving organ and cornea transplants, but there are only two donors per million people a year. This is a far cry from Spain, which has 45 donors per million people, the highest in the world.
Koen said the shortage of organs was a worldwide problem, with Europe and the US only having 15 and 18 donors per million people.
The problem was exacerbated in SA by funding shortages, particularly in the public sector where doctors were unable to keep potential donors on life-support machines due to the demand of patients who needed treatment.
“There seem to be difficulties in the public sector to transfer brain-dead patients for transplants ... doctors would rather put patients that have a possibility of living than keep an ICU bed for a brain-damaged patient,” he said.
Koen said that by law, brain-dead patients only qualify as donors once they lose 100% of their brain function. But in some cases, even though patients have irreversible brain damage, they don’t qualify as donors if they still have a little brain function left.
Doctors often had to wait several days for the brain to die completely, but keeping these patients until then could be seen as waste of hospital resources if there were other patients in the queue.
“What we see happening is that doctors often withdraw treatment when things get to this stage and these patients die and their organs cannot be used once they stop working,” he said.