Donna's Story


“We are so very grateful to Dr Kerr, the Philips Search & Rescue Trust’s Westpac Air Ambulance and hospital medical teams,” said Hez. “Donna is a total success story.”

At 38-weeks pregnant and suffering from chest pain, Donna Lander was flown to Auckland’s Greenlane Hospital by air ambulance from New Plymouth.

A dissecting aortic aneurism was rupturing as she was being wheeled into theatre and in a very touch-and-go five-hour operation, Donna’s failing aortic valve was replaced with a prosthetic one.  Donna’s unborn baby survived the operation and was delivered as planned by caesarean section.  The humble hero who saved the lives of both mother and child that day was heart surgeon Dr Alan Kerr. The year was 1987.

Fast forward 30 years to 2018 and Donna was again gravely ill with serious heart failure and admitted to Taranaki Base Hospital.  Even though her hospital notes mentioned a repair had been done previously, Taranaki doctors didn’t have access to Donna’s full medical history.

Donna’s health deteriorated rapidly and her sister, Hez, could only watch helplessly.  Hez remembered a New Zealand Listener article written months earlier highlighting the career of the heart surgeon who had saved Donna’s life 30 years prior.  Hez wanted to thank Dr Kerr for giving the family the time they had.  “Without him, Donna would have been dead 30 years ago,” she stated.

Hez emailed the Listener’s editor and asked that a short ‘thank you’ note be forwarded to Dr Kerr.  Dr Kerr remembered Donna and contacted Hez to enquire after her.  Within days he had liaised with New Plymouth cardiologists about the homograft repair he had undertaken 30 years earlier that in all probability was no longer functioning and cardiologists organised for a second life-saving transport by air ambulance, this time to Auckland Hospital.

“I was very grateful to be able to fly with her in the Hamilton-based Westpac Air Ambulance that had been dispatched to fly in to New Plymouth,” said Hez. “Donna had been very ill since January, it was now May and she was so close to death.  It was a very distressing time and the air ambulance crew were so good.  Amongst other issues, she had a lot of fluid on her lungs and was suffering delirium toxicity.  She didn’t want me to fly with her, so I sat behind her so that she couldn’t see me.”

At Auckland Hospital, Donna had a new and improved version of an artificial valve implanted and Donna’s family were left contemplating the amazing chain of events; a chance magazine article, the forwarding of a thank you note and a retired heart surgeon’s instinct, enabling doctors to bring about another life-saving outcome for his former patient.

“We are so very grateful to Dr Kerr, the Philips Search & Rescue Trust’s Westpac Air Ambulance and hospital medical teams,” said Hez.  “Donna is a total success story.”


Attached image credited to NZ Listener photographer Glenn Jeffrey.