Celebrating our Organ Donors and Transplant Research with Shelby Gielen

In the spirit of Organ Donation and Tissue Awareness Week (NOTDAW), we celebrate the journey of two-time liver transplant recipient, Shelby Gielen. With over two decades of life thanks to her two donors, Shelby shares how she’s witnessed transplant medicine evolve and why she values research.

What does transplant mean to you?

Transplant means I was able to have a wedding day and see my 30s. It means a future and that I might even make it to retirement age, which would be an incredible blessing.

Transplant has been part of your life for over two decades. How have you witnessed transplant medicine change over the years?

As a 15-year-old with acute liver failure, I was given only five years to live. A transplant saved me and gave me an additional thirteen years of life before my transplanted liver began to fail. Unbeknownst at the time, the liver I received was infected with hepatitis B. This deemed me ineligible for a second transplant. Fortunately, an experimental treatment had recently become available that could essentially eradicate the active hepatitis B virus, leaving me a carrier of the virus but without active infection. This allowed me to be listed for a second liver transplant, which I received at 27 years old. Unfortunately, I am once again in liver failure and will face a third transplant in the future.

What I want people to know is that over 25 years and across two liver transplants, I’ve benefited significantly from the evolution of immunosuppressive medication, liver disease treatments, transplant surgery, and transplant innovations. Along my journey, I’ve witnessed dozens of my friends survive because they benefited from transplantation, whereas only decades earlier they would have been deemed palliative due to the complexity of their health situation.

What do you hope for the future of transplant research?

I hope in the future, research makes transplant a cure. Ideally a gifted organ should last a lifetime. Research is getting us one step closer, but we are far from that reality. Having needed multiple transplants and facing another one in the future, I sincerely wish the patients that come after me only need one transplant to survive and enjoy a future without fearing rejection.
Research is our hope, it’s our future, it really is our light at the end of a sometimes dark tunnel.

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