This week marked 50 whole years since the first heart transplant. As a heart and double lung transplant recipient, to me, this is a very poignant anniversary. Basically, I would not be alive and even writing this if it wasn’t for those people who were willing to push the boundaries of science and experiment with medical concepts which go beyond the pale.
The very first heart transplant was carried out by Dr Christiaan Barnard, a surgeon at Groote Schur Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. The recipient was Lois Washkansky, a patient terminally ill with heart failure. The donor, Denise Darvall, was a twenty five year old who suffered a fatal brain injury in a car crash. Her father, knowing she liked to help others, made the generous decision to donate her organs. I think all of us heart transplant recipients are thankful to these pioneering people, who were at the forefront of the whole process of heart transplantation.
Heart transplantation has developed in leaps and bounds since then, with Sir Terence English performing the UK’s first successful heart transplant with long term success in 1979. This was due to the development of ciclospororin, an immunosuppressant that stops the body rejecting the heart.
There are still challenges with heart transplantation. Firstly, the shortage of organ donors poses a problem. Fewer people die in circumstances where it is possible to donate organs due to advances in medicine and things such as improved car safety. Then, there is the fact that although patients are signed up to the organ donor register, families still refuse to give consent to an organ donation. This is usually because they didn’t know their loved one’s wishes.
Only 33% of the English population have signed up to the organ donor register with the ‘opt – in’ system currently used in England for organ donation. Whatever the system, ‘opt-in’ or the ‘opt-out’, that countries are using, it is so important to discuss your decision about organ donation with your family, whether you wish to be an organ donor or not. In the UK, families can override their loved one’s wishes.
There are also still issues with rejection and there is ongoing research to develop anti-rejection medication to help improve the long term life expectancy of heart transplant recipients. Existing anti-rejection medications come with a number of problems – they have to be taken for life, cause difficult side effects and cause increased risks of infection and cancer. As many heart transplant recipients will know, it can be a constant battle of balancing anti-rejection medications, with medications to prevent infection and side effects.
As a heart transplant recipient, I’m forever grateful that I’m living in an era where this procedure has been possible and has enabled me to have extra years with my family and friends. It’s hard to imagine that just over 50 years ago, this procedure wasn’t even possible and amazing to contemplate just how much the whole process of transplantation has developed since then. Having a transplant has meant I’ve been able to live life to the full and reach many special milestones in my life during the last few years.
This special anniversary has made me stop and think about all the people who have helped to progress the process of transplantation to where it is today. I shall always be grateful to them. It is thanks to them that I can enjoy my life here and now. I’m always forever grateful to my own surgeon and his team, who performed my transplant and my transplant team who look after me constantly to keep me in optimum health. The whole team continue to strive for improvement to the transplant processes and improving our quality of life through research.
Recently, Papworth Hospital was the first UK hospital to perform Europe’s first heart transplant from a non-beating heart donor. (DCD Heart transplant programme) Another enormous breakthrough in the process of heart transplantation and a way forward to help increase the number of possible heart transplants being performed. The DCD heart programme is currently being rolled out to all the other heart transplant centres in the UK
It goes without saying, that non of these processes would be possible without our donors and their families, who give the consent to organ donation. I’m grateful to my donor and their family each and every day for the new life they have given me.