Overall my transplant has been a very positive experience, but that does not suggest that there weren’t some difficulties and challenges along the way. There were several and they were discouraging, but we kept forging ahead because the alternative was much worse. Now some 20 years post diagnosis. I am alive, I am enjoying life and I am the most grateful recipient on earth. Despite all the setbacks, the bad moments, the complications, I would not hesitate to make the same decision all over again. Thank you Mayo, donor family, my wife and family and the many friends I had and have collected since I got a new heart.
This is an accurate although abbreviated record of my journey. Yours may be totally different and likely will be. I have posted it because of a good many requests to do so. I hope it is helpful to someone. I also hope you will notice that I found some of the experience to be downright funny and I included them because seeing the humor in life’s challenges is important to your recovery. Don’t ever lose your sense of humor; in fact you should aggressively look for it in every situation. It will make your life so much easier to live.
Bob Aronson, heart recipient August 21, 2007 Mayo Clinic, Jacksonville, Florida.
The Beginning. An Earthquake Swallows You Whole
Getting an organ transplant is an experience that few ever have. From the time you first learn that you need one, until a good while after you have one, the ride is not unlike the wildest, highest, steepest, fastest, scariest roller coaster ride you can imagine. It is like standing in the street when an earthquake hits and the fissure in the pavement runs right between your feet. You get the same feeling you did in that recurring nightmare where no matter how fast you run, your legs feel like rubber and you keep falling, but each time you do it is harder to get up and that something that is chasing you is getting closer. You know you are going to die.
Emotions can range from terror, to giddiness, to depression, anxiety, guilt, anger and every other imaginable high, low or even fantasy. An organ transplant will introduce you to feelings you did not know you had and to realities you did not know existed. Most importantly it will allow you to see your own humanity; your strengths, weaknesses vulnerabilities, fears and inadequacies. In other words, you will get to know a side of yourself that you didn’t know existed.
All of us know that someday we will cease to exist, but no one likes talking about it. Insurance companies like to say, “If something happens to you,” and we all know they don’t mean winning the lottery or getting your very own magic Genii who will pop out of a jar and grant you anything you want. “If something happens to you” means not if, but when you die. It means dead, lifeless, no heartbeat, no breathing, no pulse – DEAD!
When you are told that an organ is failing, you are being told that the last option available to keep you alive is a transplant. You are dying. That is information with which it is hard to come to grips, and those of us who have had transplants have all heard that message loud and clear, it is inevitable. It is a sad fact, but everyone on the transplant list is dying.
I’m sure the death message is never delivered in the same manner twice because the circumstances that lead up to it are all different. The very first recognition that something is wrong is usually met with disbelief. “It’s probably nothing, maybe a false positive, it can’t be organ failure.”
In my case it was in mid-1995 when I left the office late one night after a long day. I’m an asthmatic and I had struggled for air all day. I could hardly wait it for it to end but I had a client until 9 PM. When she left, I waited until the elevator doors closed, turned out the lights, locked the door and took an elevator down six floors to the parking ramp. I had arrived at the office late in the day because of meeting and had to park at the very back of the ramp, a good block from the elevator. Most of the cars were gone now and there wasn’t a living, breathing soul to be seen. I could see my car in the distance, but it may as well have been in the next county. My breathing was so labored I doubted I could make it that far, but I had to try.
I am one of those guys who makes a decision and never looks back, so I forged ahead. I was going to make it to my car no matter what. I thought that if I walked slowly I wouldn’t use as much air so that’s what I did, but breathing was getting more and more difficult and my rescue inhaler seemed to have no effect. I chalked it up to a defective device and pushed on while carrying a full briefcase. I leaned on cars, support columns and sign posts, but stopped often and fell twice when my legs gave way under me.
By the time I got to my car my suit pants were torn from falling, my hands were scraped and bloodied from using them to break my falls and I was soaking wet from perspiration. With great effort I made it into the car, turned on the AC and just sat there hoping the rest would restore my ability to breathe. It didn’t. I called home to alert my wife that I was in distress and would pick her up on the way to a nearby community hospital ER. She said I should go to a bigger hospital, but I knew the bigger facility would be crowded and the wait would be a long one so we went to the small one. She was right and i was wrong. here’s what happened.
It was a small hospital in Hastings,Minnesota and there were no patients waiting in the ER lobby when I stumbled to the desk and gasped, “I’m having an asthma attack and need a shot of epinephrine,” and collapsed on a chair next to the nurse.
She took my vitals, listened to my chest, looked at my eyes and fingernails, poked around my ankles and said, “This is no asthma attack.” Somehow she alerted a crash team which appeared in microseconds. They brought with them a gurney upon which they carefully placed me and removed my tie, shirt and t-shirt while wheeling me into an ER exam cubicle. Then, someone else came along and stuck some leads on my chest, sides, legs and arms and wired me to a machine. Another person started an IV. A portable X-ray machine materialized, someone gave me a nitroglycerine pill to place under my tongue but still no shot of epinephrine and I was getting angry. I knew what to do. “Why didn’t they know? I wondered”
A doctor appeared, examined me and ignored my repeated requests for epinephrine. Finally he said, “Mr. Aronson this is not an asthma attack, even though you think it is. It’s your heart.” He left the room to have a conversation in the hall with a couple of other people and then returned to say, “Mr. Aronson, we have determined that your condition could best be handled by a hospital that has cardiologists on duty and specializes in situations just like this. We are sending you there by ambulance so you will get the best and most immediate care possible,” and they wheeled me out to my ride.
Too much was happening too fast. I was totally confused. “This is asthma, for heaven’s sake,” I thought. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around this heart stuff. I was 56 years old and thought I was in very good health. I didn’t drink or smoke and was in fairly good physical condition. I just couldn’t figure out why they thought it was my heart when I knew it was asthma. The ride to United Hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota took about 20 minutes, and I was rushed into their heart unit. More wires, more machines, more activity, blood drawn, questions asked and injections given.
Another technician appeared with an echocardiogram machine. He placed more leads on my body, some cold gel and began moving a wand around the left side of my chest. In the meantime my breathing was improving.
I could see my heart on the echo monitor and hear the “gulp, swish, swish, gulp” of the machine. All the while the medical team was explaining every detail of what they were doing and I heard none of it. “It’s an asthma attack,” I kept thinking. And then I lost consciousness.
I awakened the next morning in a hospital room with my family surrounding me. Everyone was solemn and one of my daughters was crying. A man walked in, he looked like he just stepped off the cover of Gentleman’s Quarterly. “I’m Dr. Thomas Johnson, a cardiologist,” he said. “It appears as though you have a very serious heart condition called Cardiomyopathy. We are going to run some further tests, but you may need a heart transplant.”
I thought, “Boy, this guy doesn’t mince words – a heart transplant? I vaguely remembered being on the air and reporting on the story when Dr. Christian Barnaard performed the first ever in 1967 in a South African hospital. I remember thinking, “Wow, what a development. It will help a whole lot of people someday,” never considering for a moment that I might be one of them. The diagnosis was official now, I had Idiopathic, Dilated Cardiomyopathy. That means I had heart failure from no apparent cause.
It all came together at that moment. The great truth that I had continually denied and avoided was now perfectly clear. The feeling was like that you experience when a monstrous thunder clap or earthquake rattles your bones. It was like lightning bolts flashed out of the clouds, thunder rumbled louder than I could bear and the realization that asthma had nothing to do with my condition that shook my foundation. I was in serious trouble. I felt a mixture of shock, anger, terror, doubt and disbelief. That was my introduction to a process that would take 12 more years before I got a new heart.
The Disease Progresses
A measure of the health of your heart is its ejection fraction (EF). It is how much blood is pumped out of the heart with each beat. On average we pump out about 60-70 percent. My EF was 25. When it gets too low that means that the heart has to grow larger to hold the retained blood, but it’s a gradual process. For a long while I felt OK. I went about my work and with the help of medication performed as I always had. I was a communication consultant helping business executives with presentations, testimony, personal communication and media interviews, and was always upbeat and energetic. Often I was hired as a keynote speaker at conventions. I never stood behind a lectern, but rather walked around the stage, invading people’s space and getting them involved. Slowly that became harder to do.
In 1996, a year later, I started to feel a little fatigue and while still energetic I had lost a step or two, but it was barely noticeable. That same year Avis, my wife of 33 years was diagnosed with lung cancer. She fought hard and for a while it looked like she had it beat but in 1998 she succumbed to that horrible disease and I went through the motions of living. My fear of the slow disability that would be overtaking me was exacerbated by the grief I felt over losing Avis. Being alone after 35 years of marriage is almost unbearable. She was special and losing her left a very large void in my heart and my life.
I stumbled on in a continually weakening condition until 2000 when I met and married my current wife Robin. I told her about my condition and the fact that there were not enough donor organs for the number of patients who needed them, but she was undaunted and married me anyway. As it turned out she always had more faith than I did that I would get a heart and be just fine, but I was now about five years post diagnosis and my EF had dipped to 20 and I lost another step or two. As I walked the stage in my presentations I started to become more breathless so I contracted my movement circle. It was about this same time when I fainted while driving into a parking place. That development caused my physicians to implant a defibrillator in my chest to guard me against sudden cardiac arrest.
At 9 years my EF was between 15 and 20 and it had become very difficult to be as active as I had been so I made sure that I had a bar stool when I spoke that would be placed about center stage between the lectern and the edge. I could still leave the lectern and give the image of energy but I could kind of lean on that stool. Obviously the heart failure was getting worse, but not bad enough to put me on a transplant list.
Finally at 11 years with an EF of 10 to 15 I quit doing keynote speeches and only accepted small group coaching sessions where I stood on occasion but mostly sat on a stool at the front of the room, and then one day, I couldn’t muster the energy to get through a session unless I sat in a chair.
It was time. We decided to retire and move from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Jacksonville, Florida for two reasons. One being that it was my wife’s hometown and her family was there and the second was that one of three Mayo Clinics was located there. I learned they had a phenomenal record of success in getting organs and in the survival rates of transplant recipients.
I made the necessary appointments at Mayo and went through a battery of tests for several days. Finally I was told that my case would be presented to the hospital transplant committee for approval to be placed in the national transplant list. Sure enough I was approved and listed and promptly forgot about it. Everything I had read suggested that people on the list waited a long time and that many never got an organ. I was of the belief that at age 68 I was probably too old and not sick enough. After all I was up and around and not even hospitalized.
By now my EF was down to 10 and my heart was getting seriously enlarged. I was on my second implanted defibrillator and had trouble walking from the den to the bathroom without stopping to rest. Then one morning the phone rang, I answered and confirmed my identity and my transplant cardiologist from Mayo said, “I may have a heart for you.”
I could not believe my ears. I had only been listed 13 days earlier.
“Pack a bag and come to the hospital,” Dr. Hosenpud said, “and we’ll get things underway.” In my mind “pack a bag” meant, “Get your butt over here right away, break the speed limit, we’re all waiting for you, hurry, hurry, hurry.”
I told Robin about the call and we rushed out of the house to make the 45 minute cross town drive to Mayo. It only took 30 minutes. For me the world at this point was moving at near the speed of light. My always composed and realistic wife Robin had no delusions. She expected Mayo to be as reserved and professional as they always were. My mind was simply not that organized. I perceived us screeching to a stop at the hospital where a team of the world’s greatest physicians, nurses and technicians would be in the lobby waiting for us. My mind’s eye saw us running into the hospital surrounded by people in surgical garb and lab coats who were all barking orders while the hospital PA system was calling for more doctors, nurses and technicians. I fully expected the PA system to be saying, “He’s here; the guy who is getting a new heart is here.” I envisioned being thrown on a gurney, stripped of my clothing and rolled at high speed to an operating room where the finest doctors on the planet were assembled next to an ice-covered beating heart in a stainless steel pan.
The Doctors looked like Ben Casey Dr. Zorba and Patricia Neal (all stars of the past).The scenario in my mind called for absolute pandemonium. I was that excited so they must be, too. I needed pandemonium — to have it meant this event was the show of shows, the biggest medical story of the century.
I got anything but. I walked in, stood in a very orderly line and when I was waved forward said to the receptionist, “I’m Bob Aronson and I’ve just been called by Dr. Hosenpud to come in for a heart transplant. “Ok,” I thought. “Cue the marching band and a frenzied atmosphere.” But nothing of the sort happened.
She looked up at me and smiled, looked down at her computer screen and said, “Someone will be out to get you shortly, Mr. Aronson, please have a seat.” There were scores of people in the waiting room and not a single one looked up when I entered. They all sat in perfect silence waiting their turn and ignoring my big event. For all I knew every one of them was here for a transplant as well.
“Have a seat?” I thought. “Don’t they know why I’ m here, who I am? For God’s sake there’s a heart on ice in there beating away, waiting for me and she wants me to sit?” I had considered this day often and each time I did there was pandemonium. I wanted pandemonium, I deserved pandemonium, I needed pandemonium, I craved it, but alas it never happened.
A very nice woman came out in about fifteen minutes and quietly said, “Come with me, Mr. Aronson,” and we slowly, quietly walked behind the reception desk into the surgical area, where I got on a gurney under my own power, put on a gown and was surrounded by very pleasant, highly professional staff who proceeded to quietly and efficiently “prep” me for the surgery.
Finally they wheeled me to a surgical suite where the strains of Beethoven could be heard on the speaker system as the anesthesiologist told me what his role was and about the anesthesia I would be getting. Then, he said he would give me something to “relax” me. It sure did.
I awakened in recovery the next day to the sound of Robin saying, “You have a new heart and you’re doing well.”
Recovery. The Days After
When I awakened again, I didn’t know where I was. I felt like I was duct taped to the bed. My head hurt. I was nauseous and confused. I vaguely remember several doctors entering the room. They asked about pain levels and said they were going to remove my dressings. One of them leaned over me crossed his arms so his right hand was on my right shoulder and his left on my left shoulder, Then there was the sound made by industrial strength Velcro makes when being torn apart rapidly–“Riiiiiiip” and he said, “You Ok?” I don’t remember my response because I lost consciousness again.
My next awakening was in Cardiac Intensive care. I think I was alone in my own cubicle. There was a nurse there and I was so thirsty my mouth felt like hot sandpaper. I asked for water. The nurse said, “You can have ice chips once an hour and she handed me a glass of them.
“No,” she said, “Not for another hour.”
I begged and pleaded to no avail. So I focused on the wall clock. “57 minutes to go.” It was the longest 57 minutes of my life, but right on schedule she was there with the small glass of ice chips. I was still parched and the chips gave only momentary relief, so I begged again, but failed to penetrate her compassion shield. I think I called her “an ice Nazi.” She didn’t laugh, but it didn’t sway her either. I don’t know how long that went on, but she never relented and I will always remember being the thirstiest I have ever been.
I do not recall how long I was in ICU, but I do remember being moved to my own private room. When I entered the hospital I was suffering from horrible heartburn and I was still bothered by it after surgery so I asked them to place me in the recliner chair in the room. They did and I settled in for the duration. They never cured the heartburn so I never got in bed. I’m probably one of the few transplant patients who spent all my time in the hospital room, some 9 days, without ever getting into bed. The housekeeping staff seemed to like that. One less bed to change.
My Mayo Transplant was done in St. Luke’s Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida while the Mayo hospital was being constructed. St. Luke’s was nice, with an incredible, wonderful staff, but it was old. In my room there were two chairs, one was the recliner in which I sat. I think it was built in 1915 in Tsarist Russia for use on the enemies of the “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin. You had to be a contortionist to adjust the recline angle of the chair and no one who has had their chest cavity carved open has that ability.
That chair was bad enough, but the other one was clearly meant as an alternative to water boarding. It was a straight backed heavy oak, ladder-back chair. It was designed to make people confess, not to be comfortable and it was what Robin had to sit on, day after day. I don’t know what happened to it since then, but I would bet it is indestructible, probably won’t even burn.
During my stay there, I was constantly wheeled to different tests including heart biopsies, more echograms, X-ray’s and other imaging, pulmonary exams and treatments and meds adjustments. I was weak, still had heartburn, was not eating very much and generally didn’t feel real good, but finally was sent home with instructions on how to recover there.
Post-transplant depression is quite common for a host of reasons, one in particular is guilt. It is not unusual for a transplant recipient to feel terrible because “someone had to die, in order that I could live.” That statement supposes that the organ recipient bears some responsibility for the death of the donor. When you consider it, the thought is unreal and illogical. While I understand that sentiment I respectfully disagree. Here’s my take on the issue. No one HAD to die and when they did, it was not so you could live. That person’s life had ended. They died sadly, because it was their time to go. Prior to that he or she voluntarily signed up to be an organ donor. Then, for whatever reason they died. When they did UNOS (The United Network for Organ Sharing) began a search to look for a match for the organs of the deceased person. You are a number on their list; they don’t have your name.
No one HAD to die so you could get a transplant, but someone did die and you were chosen to get the organ. It’s not as though your donor was called in to the central office and told, “Hey George, today is your turn, We need your heart, kidneys and pancreas. We’ll be putting you down at 3 PM so say your goodbyes.” It just doesn’t work that way. George, for whatever reason, lost his life that day and because he was a generous, compassionate person he had arranged for someone to get his organs upon his passing. Someone, anyone. It is a gift to whoever needs it most. Your donor made that decision, no one else. Be grateful, yes, but guilt has no place in the equation. you are not responsible for your donor’s death.
I seemed to be doing better at home until I awakened one morning with a terrible heaviness in my chest. Breathing was difficult and I was coughing. A call to my transplant coordinator resulted in being instructed to go to the Emergency Room right away. It wasn’t long after I arrived and was examined that I was informed that I had pneumonia and the pulmonologist said he was very worried about my lungs. After nine more days in the hospital and some heavy duty therapy I began to recover and was released. When I got home I retreated to the den in my favorite recliner, turned on the TV and sunk into terrible depression, a condition that didn’t end soon or easily.
Like all transplant patients I was not allowed to drive for a while so at least twice a week Robin had to drive me to Mayo for checkups and treatments. I went because I had to. There was no joy in any of it including the cardiac rehab program, which was well-run, but well beyond my ability to enjoy. This was my lowest point ever. I have since learned that post-transplant depression is very common and yes, I was treated for it, but it is the kind of illness that doesn’t respond immediately to treatment, so I stayed in that state for several months while we experimented with anti-depressants.
At the same time, I was stricken with incredible shoulder, neck, arm and wrist pain. I knew I had the beginnings of osteoarthritis, but I didn’t know it could be this painful. Additionally, I was told that when they perform a heart transplant your arms are placed over your head at a strange angle so the surgeon has complete access to the chest cavity. It is not unusual, I’m told, for some patients to suffer shoulder pain as a result. I was one of those patients. For weeks I suffered from pain so horrible I could not sleep or eat and while the Mayo docs made every effort to help, it took time to find the appropriate method of addressing it. They finally did, but that episode had me descend into even greater depths of depression.
Slowly, very slowly I regained my appetite, my mood brightened and the pain lifted, but it was almost a two year ordeal in which I went from 225 pounds to 150, a 75 pound loss due to having no interest in food and a stomach that wouldn’t keep much down. I think I lived on puddings, gelatins and soft fruits. The only thing that kept me going was a newfound interest called Social Media.
Robin was my salvation in all of this. She not only took care of me at home, but made sure I made all my medical appointments, had the right meds and ran two businesses out of our home at the same time. She is steady as a rock, never panics and is always up-beat and encouraging. Being a caregiver is very hard work. She did it and to some degree still does it without complaint. I am a most fortunate man. I love her with a special intensity and am blessed that she feels the same about me. She is a fantastic woman.
In November of 2007, two months after my transplant I got a call from Lee Aase the social media guru for Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. I knew Lee professionally and was flattered when he called to ask if I’d be interested in starting a Facebook group and a blog. I said, “Huh,” and “huh.” I had no idea what either were. Lee is a patient man and took the time to give me a crash course and that’s when today’s over 4,200 member Facebook group Organ transplant Initiative was founded along with Bob’s Newheart blogs. Lee came up with the Newheart name which I still think is mighty clever.
The miracle of the social media for me is that it gave me some new responsibilities, which I desperately needed. My nature is such that if I take on a task I don’t know how to give it anything but my very best. OTI and the Newheart blogs gave me a new reason to get up in the morning. Each day I had something new to do, blogs to write, topics to introduce on Facebook and something to keep my mind off of my miseries. Lee’s call may have saved my sanity.
The Facebook group grew rapidly and the members were incredibly supportive of one another and of me. Since I started blogging I have posted over 260 columns on topics around transplantation/donation and related issues, which is just about any medical story. While some of them were provided by guest bloggers I researched and wrote about 90 percent of them.
Robin is an artist and we sell her colorful anodized aluminum and polymer clay jewelry at art fairs around the east and Midwest and we travel to those shows with our two dogs in our RV to the tune of about 20,000 miles a year. We love the life, enjoy what we do and have no plans to quit anytime soon.
Her art business required furnishings for her tent and because I have always liked doing woodwork I began to build a shop and make shelving, pedestals, picture frames, tables and wooden jewelry boxes. I’m no expert woodworker, but it is a hobby I really enjoy and intend to keep doing it as long as I can. I am busier today than I was when I was working, but now I answer to no one but I and work only on things that give me great satisfaction.
I am convinced that the road to good health and happiness is made easier if you can stay busy doing things you love doing.
Readers – the only advice I can give you is this. Never give up, never. Be confident of a bright future because if you think otherwise you may be paving your own road to hell. Find something you really like doing, enjoy your new life, love your friends and loved ones with every ounce of your soul and as Spock said, “Live long and prosper.” You’re worth it and you deserve it!
Bob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s over 4,200 member Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI) and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs. You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at email@example.com. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love. You can register to be a donor at http://www.donatelife.net. It only takes a few minutes. Then, when registered, tell your family about your decision so there is no confusion when the time comes.
Blog by James Myers
James Myers lives in Indiana and is a member of Facebook’s Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI). He suffers from End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) or Kidney failure. Jim is on dialysis and has been active locally and nationally in the effort to end the 36 month limit on Medicare coverage of anti-rejection drugs. He is one of the 100,000 kidney patients on the national transplant waiting list. Jim is a frequent thoughtful and valuable contributor to the discussions on OTI and we thank him profusely for writing the following blog.
ARE DIALYSIS PATIENTS NOT SEEKING KIDNEY TRANSPLANTS BECAUSE ANTI-REJECTION DRUGS COST TOO MUCH?
By James Myers
Everyone is born with two kidneys, but we can survive with one if necessary. Sometimes called “The Silent Epidemic” Kidney disease affects millions and threatens even more. 600,000 American citizens suffer from ESRD (End Stage Renal Disease) and kidney failure which leaves you with 3 choices: (1) dialysis; (2) a kidney transplant or (3) death. Kidney transplant recipients must take immunosuppressive drugs for the life of their transplant, or they risk losing their new organ. Medicare pays for the transplant and immunosuppressive drugs for 36
months post-transplant unless beneficiary is Medicare-aged (65) or Medicare-disabled. The Medicare (ESRD) program pays for dialysis or transplantation for over 600,000 kidney disease patients every year, regardless of age, and has saved millions of lives in the four decades since its enactment. After a transplant, recipients must take immunosuppressive drugs every day for the rest of his or her life. Failure to do so significantly increases the risk of organ rejection and therefore, death. If you are covered by Medicare due to either age or disability and have a transplant your anti-rejection drugs are covered for life. If you are not covered due to age or disability Medicare will still pay for your kidney transplant, but will only cover anti-rejection drugs for 36 months, then you are on your own. this policy makes absolutely no sense because, ironically, Medicare will pay for a lifetime of dialysis which costs more and even more ironically, if you go into rejection because you can’t afford to buy the drugs that prevent it, Medicare will pay for another transplant and/or dialysis at costs that are many times that of the annual expense of immunosuppressant drugs. This political slight of hand act not only wastes U.S. taxpayer dollars, it can actually cause death.
Here are some startling facts that make you wonder why congress refuses to make a common sense change. When Medicare coverage ends after 36 months many transplant recipients have difficulty finding other coverage for their immunosuppressive drugs. Medicare spends around $90.000 per year for an individual who is on dialysis and $125,000 during the first year of a kidney transplant. However, after that first year the transplant patient’s drug costs plummet to $25,000 or a little over $2,000 a month. Not many people have an easy time paying that bill but for the federal government it would be a cost saving measure to cover the drugs rather than pay for a new transplant or more dialysis. Furthermore, extending mmunosuppressive coverage beyond the 36-month post-transplant limit would improve outcomes and enable more kidney patients who lack adequate insurance to consider transplantation. Most transplant recipients also have a higher quality of life, and are more likely to return to work than dialysis patients, and if they return to work they again become taxpayers.
Currently, there is a bill pending in the U.S. senate (S. 323), “The Comprehensive Immunosuppressive Drug Coverage for Kidney Transplant Patients Act,” would extend Medicare Part B coverage for kidney transplant recipients for the purpose of immunosuppressive drugs only. All other Medicare coverage would end 36 months after the transplant. Beneficiaries would be responsible for the appropriate portion of the Part B premium, as well as applicable deductible and coinsurance requirements. For patients who have another form of health insurance, Medicare would be the secondary payer. The bill also requires that group health plans currently providing coverage of immunosuppressive drugs for kidney transplant recipients maintain this coverage.
There is a corresponding bill in the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 1428): Comprehensive Immunosuppressive Drug Coverage for Kidney Transplant Patients Act. The Senate version of the bill has been passed out of committee.
Last week, I read a blog I found to be disturbing. Coupled with that, I received a note from one of my friends. The note and the blog indicated that people who were unable to age/disability qualify for Medicare were refusing transplants due to the high costs of the anti-rejection medications. According to Cameron Field and Kidney Buzz, of the 275,000 people who are on dialysis in the United States, only 93,000 chose to be listed on the US Kidney Transplant Waiting List. Two thirds of dialysis patients are not listed, while only one third had chosen to list.
Does the prospect of Medicare coverage for only 36 months and then the average monthly cost of approximately $2100/ month cause people to decline the transplant option? Of course, there may be others reasons to decline; it requires a surgery, the risk of infection, the risk of rejection even if you take the meds, the necessary follow up, and pain, but sources are now saying that it may be possible that up to 34% of dialysis patients are declining transplants due to the cost of anti-rejection meds. They know they will die without the transplant but they have no choice.
The Dialysis Patient Citizens conducted a survey last year on this issue. 29% said they had other medical conditions. 26% said they were too old. 7% said they were overweight. 6% said their doctors didn’t recommend it. 5% said they were satisfied with dialysis. However, 6% cited financial reasons generally, 4% said they couldn’t afford the surgery, and 2.5% said they couldn’t afford the medications. 17% cited personal reasons. Who knows how many in that 17% didn’t want to disclose financial hardship. So according to the DPC’s data, between 13% and 30% aren’t on the list due to financial reasons. Of the 13,000 transplants performed last year, 6,000 were from living donors, but there are some barriers to living donation that must be overcome, as well.
Nearly everyone knows that while we are born with two kidney’s we can live with just one, so many people choose to donate the second kidney to a dying patient,. While the recipients insurance pays the medical costs the donor is often left footing the bill for lost wages while hospitalized and travel to and from the transplant center. Some states,but not all will provide reimbursement in the form of tax deductions, but nice as they are, they don’t put cash in the pocket of the donor. The feds have a few grants available but they are grossly underfunded and so many have to foot the bill themselves. That knowledge may prevent many from offering to be donors. The DPC estimates that cost to reimburse lost wages is about $6,000 for one surgery. When you look at in in terms of Medicare paying for the transplant surgery ($100,000) and for the cost of anti-rejection drugs ($24,000 a year), travel and lost wages for the donor would be a minimal expense and if available would likely increase the number of living donors.
So where do we stand? If 30% of the people taking dialysis refuse to be listed due to the costs of transplant autoimmune medications, then we are talking about approximately 100,000 people who cannot afford a life-saving transplant.
Everyone on dialysis knows that life expectancy while on that machine is, on average, from 3-5 years. Life expectancy for a transplant, from a living donor is on average, 12 to 20 years, while a deceased donor kidney is somewhat less, 8 to 12 years. If you receive a kidney transplant before you are required to begin dialysis then you will live 10 to 15 years longer than if you stayed on dialysis. So, even though a kidney transplant involves major surgery and requires some risk, in comparison it offers you a longer life. Most patients who have been on dialysis before their transplant see an amazing difference in their quality of life.
There are two closely related issues here that can be resolved.by one simple action. The Congress must pass and the President must sign the bill that would provide lifetime coverage of anti-rejection drugs. It is the only logical, financially responsible and humane solution to a problem that has already caused untold misery and death.
If you find the current law absurd and a waste of money and want to see it changed to save lives and taxpayer dollars then you can help by writing to your congressional representative or U.S. Senator today. The sample letter below can be used as a guide, but we encourage you to use your own words.
Dear ____; I am contacting you to request that you cosponsor important legislation for chronic kidney disease patients (for the house, refer to file H.R. 1428. For the senate refer to file S 323), the “Comprehensive Immunosuppressive Drug Coverage for Kidney Transplant Patients Act to help kidney transplant recipients obtain the life-saving immunosuppressive medications that are necessary to maintain the viability of their new kidney.
Individuals with chronic kidney failure require kidney dialysis or a transplant to survive, and are eligible for Medicare regardless of age or other disability. There is no time limit on Medicare coverage for dialysis patients. However, transplant recipients who are not aged or disabled retain Medicare eligibility only for 36 months following their transplant. After their Medicare ends, they often face the challenge of obtaining group health insurance or other coverage, greatly increasing the risk of organ rejection if they cannot afford their required medications. If the transplanted kidney fails, they return to dialysis or receive another transplant, both of which are more costly (Medicare spends about $90,000 annually on a dialysis patient and about $25,000 per year for a kidney transplant recipient, after the year of the transplant).
The current bill would extend Medicare Part B eligibility, and only for immunosuppressive medications. Coverage for any other health needs would end 36 months after the transplant, as under current law. The legislation also requires group health plans to maintain coverage of immunosuppressive drugs if they presently include such a benefit in their coverage. Lifetime immunosuppressive coverage will improve long term transplant outcomes, enable more kidney patients who lack adequate insurance to consider transplantation, and reduce the number of kidney patients who require another transplant. Nobody should lose a transplant because they are not able to pay for the drugs to maintain it.
On behalf of thousands of transplant patients, I respectfully request your support of this legislation. Sincerely,
In order to help you write to your representative in congress Bob’s Newheart has provided the following resource. You can find your elected representatives and others here http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml or you can use the following links as well
To find your U.S. Senator’s address click on this link http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm
To find your congressional representative click on this link. http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/
Bob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s nearly 4,000 member Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI) and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs. You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.
What if we could end the organ shortage tomorrow and everyone on the list could get a transplant within a few weeks? Would you be willing to endorse this new source of organs? If the source were a pig would you be willing to kill it to save your own life?
Xenotransplantation is the process of transplanting organs from animals into humans and historically that hasn’t worked too well. The human immune system immediately and violently attacks organs from animals and even our most powerful immunosuppressant drugs are ineffective but scientists are working on the problem because if we could use animal organs (ethical questions aside for now) we could end the organ shortage almost immediately.
The answer may lie in raising transgenic animals – animals that carry genes from other species or in the case of humans, animals that have been genetically modified so that their organs are transplantable into human beings.
According to www.actionbioscience.org Transgenic animals are not a pipe dream either, they are already being produced. The majority has been mice but scientists have also produced rabbits, pigs, sheep, and cattle. The primary question is not if we can raise pigs to produce organs for humans but when that is likely to happen and it’s possible it could happen relatively soon. In Korea scientists have already cloned a genetically altered pig with hopes of using its organs in humans but that has, to my knowledge, not yet been done successfully.
There are distinct medical applications to the process of transgenics and providing a ready supply of transplantable organs is one of them. Presently there is a single protein that can cause rejection but researchers think they can eliminate that problem in the not too distant future by replacing it with a human protein. It is also possible that animals could be raised to be disease resistant which would benefit both the animal and humans to which some animal diseases can cross.
Pigs are currently thought to be the best candidates for organ donation. The risk of cross-species disease transmission is decreased because of their increased phylogenetic distance from humans. They are readily available, their organs are anatomically comparable in size, and new infectious agents are less likely since they have been in close contact with humans through domestication for many generations.
Aside from growing organs for transplantation, milk producing animals are desirable, too, because they can be used to producenutritional supplements and pharmaceuticals. Products such as insulin, growth hormone, and blood anti-clotting factors may soon be or have already been obtained from the milk of transgenic cows, sheep, or goats. Research is also underway to manufacture milk through transgenesis for treatment of debilitating diseases such as phenylketonuria (PKU), hereditary emphysema, and cystic fibrosis.
So, yes, there are great possibilities with transgenic animals but there are also ethical concerns that must be addressed. For example:
- Should there be universal protocols for transgenesis?
- Should such protocols demand that only the most promising research be permitted?
- Is human welfare the only consideration? What about the welfare of other life forms?
- Should scientists focus on in vitro (cultured in a lab) transgenic methods rather than, or before, using live animals to alleviate animal suffering?
- Will transgenic animals radically change the direction of evolution, which may result in drastic consequences for nature and humans alike?
- Should patents be allowed on transgenic animals, which may hamper the free exchange of scientific research?
Animals like pigs offer hope for the thousands of people languishing on the national transplant list. Unfortunately these things take time and while scientists and then politicians and bureaucrats investigate the possibilities thousands will die waiting for organs. The altruistic system that we have in place in America just isn’t enough. We must do more to save the lives of those who need organs. Hope lies in xenotransplantation, regenerative medicine, therapeutic cloning and artificial organ development. We must keep that hope alive by support these efforts.
Bob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s nearly 2,500 member Organ Transplant Initiative and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs.
You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at email@example.com. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love.
Please view our video “Thank You From the Bottom of my Donor’s heart” on http://www.organti.org This video was produced to promote organ donation so it is free and no permission is needed for its use.
If you want to spread the word personally about organ donation, we have another PowerPoint slide show for your use free and without permission. Just go to http://www.organti.org and click on “Life Pass It On” on the left side of the screen and then just follow the directions. This is NOT a stand-alone show; it needs a presenter but is professionally produced and factually sound. If you decide to use the show I will send you a free copy of my e-book, “How to Get a Standing “O” that will help you with presentation skills. Just write to firstname.lastname@example.org and usually you will get a copy the same day.
Also…there is more information on this blog site about other donation/transplantation issues. Additionally we would love to have you join our Facebook group, Organ Transplant Initiative The more members we get the greater our clout with decision makers.