MY STORY: I'm embracing my second chance at life

Double lung transplantee and author Gray Bickley of Peregian Springs moves on to the next inspiring chapter of his life story with the launch this month of his crime novel, Contained. Today the 71-year-old he tells JIM FAGAN about his amazing lust for life since his transplant and wonders if he inherited his love for writing from his lung donor.

I WAS told I had only six weeks to live!

Seventeen years ago I was walking along Noosa Main Beach with my wife Judy when I noticed a shortness of breath.

After many thoracic tests I was diagnosed with a lung disease called IPF (Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis) and, fortunately for me, I was introduced to the lung transplant team at Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane.

There is no cure for IPF which attacks the lungs and the only alternative is a transplant.

For three years I trialled new drugs but in 2003 I became so seriously ill my doctors knew it was time for me to be assessed for a double lung transplant.

The disease gradually became worse and in 2004 it became aggressive.

I was told I had six, maybe eight, weeks to live.

Judy and I were stunned and frightened but we both had faith in the transplant team and three weeks later the call came to report to the Prince Charles - a set of lungs had been found.

The timing was perilously close as I was on oxygen 16 hours a day, doing nothing except trying to breathe.

When I woke after the operation, my lungs had failed to open and I had difficulty breathing.

I was 18 days on life support and in hospital for a month, learning how to breathe naturally again.

It was about six months before I felt confident with the medication to get back to my job as a consultant designer for lightning protection on major buildings.

I was 58 when I was given this most generous gift of life by a stranger and I promised myself I was going to make every moment count.

I've discovered I have considerable talent as a wildlife photographer, specialising in birds, and my photos have been published in several national magazines and field guides, although these days I'm not as mobile as I used to be and I can't get to the places I used to.

It's probably fair to say I have really embraced nature. I used to be a keen fisherman. Now, I value life so much I can't kill a fish or even a cane toad!

MY STORY: I'm embracing my second chance at life

Gray Bickley with the Ford Escort he has only recently stopped driving in competition. Contributed

I've become seriously interested in classic car rallying and I'm now a life member and past president of the Noosa Beach Classic Car Club.

I was a radio announcer in my pre-transplant life and I'm the microphone man for both the Noosa Classic Hill Climb and the Noosa Beach Classic Car Show.

I've only recently stopped driving my Ford Escort due to health reasons.

I was until this year, laird of the Noosa Whisky Society a position (when upright!) I have thoroughly enjoyed.

I continue to study single malt whisky and I have to taste a lot, purely as a learning resource, of course.

I'm on long-term antibiotics but a couple of snifters of single malt can't do any harm.

Judy and I lived in Sydney before coming to the Coast and in the mid-1970s I followed a long wish to go into the world of acting and radio announcing.

I had mixed success with lots of voice-over work for companies such as the ABC and Film Australia. I also did some TV and theatre jobs.

Probably my career highlight was working on a series of films to train media students at Sydney Uni, directed by a young Bruce Beresford.

It was hard to make a living as an actor and because I wasn't acting all day every day, a friend of mine gave me a job cleaning shipping containers. It was fairly mundane work and I found myself imagining what would happen if I found a stash of drugs in one of the containers.

MY STORY: I'm embracing my second chance at life

Gray with his new book Contained, which will be launched in Noosa next Friday. Contributed

The idea has been simmering ever since and the result is my first book, Contained, which is a crime thriller about drugs found in the Port of Brisbane, murder and an accused ex stuntman who is forced to go on the run from the Queensland Drug Squad and ex-bikies, all the time fighting for his life and those close to him.

It has taken me a year to finish and I've now started on my second book which is based on Fraser Island and called Vanished.

It is the story of a British crime scene investigator who comes to find his brother who is lost on Fraser and runs into vicious people running drugs and human trafficking.

Writing is something new for me. Before my transplant I hadn't written much but during my recovery I became more and more interested in it, which perhaps makes me think there may be something in what's called "cellular memory” - that the donated organs have some kind of memory, maybe in their DNA.

A friend of mine who also had a double lung transplant found himself watching Elvis movies - something he had never done before.

He actually found his donor's family and when he went to see them he was told the donor was their mother. He went into her room and it was covered in Elvis posters.

I haven't found my donor family as the Donate Life organisation prefers donors stay anonymous.

I think that's a pity. I don't like the word closure. It could be a good beginning for the family and the recipient.

Wouldn't it be fascinating, if a bit off-the-wall, if my donor had been a poet and a writer?

I'm pretty much aware of my fragility. Only 50% of people who get transplants like mine live longer than eight years.

It's very good if patients, in terms of longevity, live 18-20 years or more.

The thought that someone had to die so I could live is a thought which I have every day.

I'm 13 years out of transplant now and cramming as much into life as I can. My health has remained level with the help of Judy who has been my marvellous rock for all these years.

We live in Peregian with our dog Riley.

I'm very grateful for the time I have been given so far and, if you asked me why I wrote the book, I would say I wanted to leave something behind that someone can pick up on the ether in fifty years' time.

Contained will be available in most book stores on the Sunshine Coast. Cost is $24.95 or from [email protected] or on the internet from Ingram Spark as a print on demand and in the New Year as an eBook. It will be launched next Friday in Noosa.