Reg Chisholm received a life-saving heart transplant 17 years ago and will ride the iconic course wearing a jersey bearing a tribute to the unknown donor who has enabled him to live his life to the full.
The 62-year-old from Dunbar in East Lothian was gravely ill when he was put on the transplant waiting list after suffering a serious heart attack which left him struggling for breath and his lungs drowning in fluid.
Incredibly, less than 24 hours after being told by doctors his only chance of survival was a new heart, he got the call that would change his life. The operation took place a matter of hours later and was a huge success.
But the family suffered another trauma five years ago when Reg’s son, Barry, had a heart attack at the age of just 37. He pulled through and is now being treated for his condition with medication – but is acutely aware that he is living with a ticking time bomb.
Reg, a mechanical engineer, will complete Etape Loch Ness – a 66-mile sportive which loops the iconic loch on 23 April – wearing a jersey showing a heart emblem with the words ‘in memory of my donor’ written on the back.
Reg said: “Thanks is not a strong enough term for what my donor did for me.
“I want to honour his life by living mine to the full – I’ve got a duty to him and his family to look after this heart, and that’s why exercise has become so important to me.
“I try to promote organ donation as much as possible, and I know that quite a few people have joined the register after I’ve told them my story. We can help as many as seven people when we pass away – that’s a fantastic legacy to leave behind.”
He added: “I had been in hospital for assessments, after which a decision is made whether the patient is suitable for transplantation or not, and luckily for me the surgeons placed me on transplant waiting list.
“I was just about to get in a taxi to take me home and wait on the call to save my life, when they said they had found a heart for me and asked if I was ready to accept the heart and undergo the operation.
“It was overwhelming. It had been intended for another patient, but as he was in Aberdeen and not able to travel to Glasgow Royal Infirmary in time because there was thick fog. Sadly, it’s just the luck of the draw – I had my new heart in a matter of hours, but some people have to wait for years because suitable organs cannot be found.
“After my heart attack, I didn’t keep in the best of health for many years. I’d been quite active when I was younger, and played a lot of rugby so I’d never been unfit and had a physical job. I wanted to do something to get back in shape after the transplant to keep my heart healthy, and that’s when I discovered my love of cycling.
“My friend and work colleague, Walter Wise, took me under his wing and helped me put the early miles in - and every ride was like me doing the Tour De France. All great memories now but hard, hard, work then.”
Within a short amount of time Reg was clocking up the miles on long rides out on the roads, and was invited to take part in the Transplant Games as a time trial cyclist and 20k road race.
He’s competed at transplant events at British, European and World level – bagging medals of every colour along the way – and creating memories that will last a lifetime.
Reg added: “The World Transplant Games in Nancy, France was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The athletes marched out into the town square and it was just like being in the real Olympics. The crowd and fans created such an electric atmosphere that everyone’s nerve endings were jingling - which created loads of tears as well.
“I love taking part in events and Etape Loch Ness has been one that Barry and I have had our eye on for a while. I can’t wait to experience the scenery and to ride past Urquhart Castle.”
Barry, now 42, says he followed his dad’s lead by exercising to keep his heart healthy and to help stave off the threat of another heart attack. They have already taken part in a number of cycling events together, and Barry often tows his Scottie dog, Hamish, in a trailer.
Hamish tends to attract more attention that his human companions: he shot to fame in 2014 when he and Barry, along with Barry’s son Aaron (14) led Team Scotland out at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games opening ceremony.
In addition to helping his dad raise awareness about organ donation, Barry will be raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support – the official charity partner of Etape Loch Ness – in memory of friend, James Merritt, who sadly passed away in October 2016.
“Exercise is so important to keep the heart healthy, and cycling is great because it’s something that my dad and I can do together. We’ve come to love our Saturday morning jaunts,” says Barry, who also lives in Dunbar.
“My dad was so ill: the transplant not only changed his life, it saved his life. He’s really got into the cycling and it’s helped him to lose weight and look after his heart. He’s now a lean, mean cycling machine and I am so proud – and so grateful – to be able to cycle with him.
“I knew that my dad’s heart condition was hereditary. He was in his 40s when he had his heart attack so I was acutely aware that it may happen to me then too. I never expected that I would have a heart attack at the age of 37, so it’s important that I look after myself.”
Thousands of cyclists, many of them raising money for good causes, are gearing up to take part in Etape Loch Ness on April 23.
Starting and finishing in Inverness, the route follows the north side of the loch and then loops round at Fort Augustus to return via the south side. Once past Fort Augustus, cyclists face the toughest challenge of the course – a 4.8-mile climb rising to 380m in height at the Glendoe Summit.
Etape Loch Ness has grown to become one of the nation’s best loved cycling events and places this year sold out in a record 50 hours.
Macmillan Cancer Support works extensively across the Highlands and the rest of the UK, and is the official charity partner of Etape Loch Ness for the third year running.
Over 98% of the charity’s £189.7 million income in 2013 was generated from voluntary donations. It uses the money to pay for a wide range of healthcare, support and information services, including cancer care nurse specialists and mobile information centres.
Every day, 19 people in the north of Scotland receive the devastating news that they have cancer.
Sadly, 10 people will die as a result of the illness. It is estimated that the number of people in the Highlands living with cancer will double over the next 20 years.