Hundreds of British Columbians have organ transplants every single year with life transforming impacts. But these patients must learn how to manage their health following their second chance at life. There are realities to life after transplant. More than five thousand British Columbians are alive today because of an organ transplant. Each of these individuals has a unique, and sometimes challenging, journey towards new health.
It is important to remember that transplant is not a cure. It is a treatment for a life-threatening medical condition for which there is no survival. But transplant itself is considered a chronic lifelong medical condition.
Here are three main ways transplant recipients are impacted:
Please note: this article is not intended to provide medical advice.
The body’s immune system presents the biggest obstacle to achieving long-term success following an organ transplant. A transplanted organ is viewed as a foreign object by the immune system. This requires recipients to take a daily cocktail of anti-rejection medication to prevent rejection and maintain function of the transplanted organ, also called a graft. These medications suppress the immune system, bringing a host of side effects that can be deadly. This includes an increased risk of cancer, liver and kidney damage, high blood pressure and diabetes.
There is ongoing research to study the immune system and how it impacts life after transplant. One goal is to develop new therapies that will enable recipients to live long and healthy lives without the need for aggressive immunosuppressive medication. Another goal is to be able to offer a more ‘personalized medicine’ approach to immune suppression – one person may need far less medication to achieve the same results as another recipient.
Organ donation is often referred to as a second chance at life. For individuals living with end-stage organ failure, transplantation offers hope. It pulls individuals back from the brink of certain death, offering renewed health and a chance to resume a life that was put on hold due to severe illness.
Recipients are able to go from managing their life-threatening disease, including the debilitating rigors of dialysis for kidney transplant recipients, to a more normal lifestyle. Diets are less restrictive, returning to school or work is a possibility, and there is potential for travel.
The transplant journey can bring a wide range of emotions, from extreme joy and relief, to guilt and depression. The importance of mental health for transplant recipients has become more recognized in recent years, and now many transplant centres offer support through a multidisciplinary team that includes psychologists and social workers.
One of the predominant concerns for recipients is the future. Organ transplants are a treatment, not a cure, and as such, the expected lifespan of an organ is unpredictable. There are multiple factors influencing the outcome of a transplant. This can lead to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many recipients also deal with feelings of guilt. This ranges from guilt about having depression or anxiety post-transplant, to feeling indebted to the living donor or deceased donor’s family.
The research funded by the Transplant Research Foundation of British Columbia addresses all of these very important considerations with the aim of improving outcomes and overall quality of life for recipients.