In light of August being Organ Transplant Month, Affinity Health, a leading provider of high-quality healthcare, talks to kidney donor recipient, 38-year-old Cristina Dos Santos-Walters on her life-changing organ transplant journey.
At any moment in South Africa, about 4,300 people are waiting for organ donations. Typically, these individuals require new livers, kidneys, lungs, or hearts.
However, organ donors are in scarce supply. This is not a South African phenomenon. Many nations worldwide are unable to meet the demand for organ donors.
Twenty-two years ago, Cristina was diagnosed with Post-Streptococcal Glomerulonephritis (PSGN), a rare kidney disease that can develop after group A strep infections.
“In my case, I had had an upper respiratory infection a few weeks before my kidneys failed; the doctors believe that was the cause of my sudden kidney failure at the age of 13,” says Cristina.
“My main symptom was sudden blurred eye vision. A visit to the optometrist showed nothing wrong with my eyes, and I was then referred to my family doctor for further investigation. Tests revealed my blood pressure was slightly elevated and my creatinine was nearly double the normal range.
She advised we run more blood tests the following morning after fasting. Again, they remained elevated. I was prescribed medication to stabilise the levels, but a couple of days later, I had an excruciating headache, and my blurred vision worsened. A trip to casualty revealed my blood pressure was dangerously high. The doctors were surprised I wasn’t in a coma, let alone walking around.”
Cristina was hospitalised, and many more tests were done, with blood pressure checks every 15 minutes. Things did not improve. A few days later, Cristina’s kidneys had completely shut down, and the toxins in her blood were alarming, so the only way forward was to commence haemodialysis. She was put on the kidney donor list, and, 20 months later, a match was found.
“I had my kidney transplant on 5 December 1999. The donor was a 21-year-old man who had died in a motorcycle accident. His family had noted on the system that they did not want to be contacted by any of their son’s organ donor recipients. There isn’t a day where I am not grateful for the greatest gift he has given me, a second chance at life,” says Cristina.
Cristina adds that her transplant differed from other kidney transplants as it did not come from a living donor. Initially, her mother tried to see if she could give Cristina one of her kidneys. It involved a lot of testing that spanned over six weeks, and unfortunately, the tests revealed she was not a compatible match.
The potential kidney transplant recipient’s information is stored in a database with a cadaver donor. Three factors determine if a transplant will be successful: blood typing, tissue typing and cross-matching.
When I got my call that a donor match had been found, I immediately went to the hospital. Blood tests were done to ensure I was in good health, and a pre-transplant haemodialysis session was done to ensure my blood was as toxin-free as possible for the surgery to succeed,” says Cristina.
“My first few days after the transplant were challenging due to my kidney not working immediately. I resembled something like a bloated hippo with fluid retention and unable to pass urine. They performed a biopsy on the new kidney, and all tests showed that the kidney was alive; it just needed to ‘wake up’ and start working. To not fully overload the new kidney, the doctors had me do a few more haemodialysis sessions.”
Unfortunately, the kidney did not start working immediately.
“Rule of thumb is that a kidney can only be on ice for 48 hours before it becomes ineffective. I received mine in the last remaining hours of that period. It took 20 days to start working. But it was the best Christmas present I have ever received,” she says.
What lifestyle changes did Cristina have to make following the kidney transplant?
“After the transplant, I was immunocompromised, so I had to learn to avoid sick people, maintain a healthy diet, exercise, go for regular check-ups and, most importantly, learn to listen to my body,” says Cristina.
“To ensure that my body didn’t reject the transplant, one of the most fundamental things I had to do was to remember and acknowledge that this disease is with me for life. A kidney transplant is not a cure; it’s a treatment. Nonetheless, there are some measures a recipient can try to maintain to ensure the transplant’s longevity.
Never miss taking the chronic medication. Trust your team; they are there to guide and support you. Regular blood testing and check-ups with your nephrologist are crucial in determining how the transplanted kidney is coping.”
Cristina says she has suffered a few health scares since the transplant. A common cold would turn into bronchitis and even pneumonia within a day of initial symptoms. Stomach bugs or food poisoning required immediate visits to hospitals. Antibiotics had to be administered intravenously to ensure quick and effective treatment was put into action to prevent any damage to the kidney.
Stress is something that takes its toll on a body that is immunocompromised, so Cristina says it’s essential to keep your stress levels in check and seek help when things get a bit daunting.
“To anyone thinking of becoming an organ donor, I, for one, thank you. It is the most selfless, life-changing gift you can give a fellow human being. Be it to someone you know if you are to become a living donor, or to a stranger upon your death. What a gift! I have now had my gift for over two decades, and my kidney is strong and healthy. I got a second chance to live.
I got to enjoy my teenage years, complete my studies, travel, become a mother to a beautiful 12-year-old daughter, and all because a young man and his family believed that someone’s life could be improved by donating his organs. I’d like to believe I have and am doing his memory justice and living life to the fullest.”
Who Can Be An Organ Donor?
Almost anyone, regardless of age, can become an organ donor. Anyone under the age of 18 must have parental or guardian permission. A medical evaluation will determine which organs can be donated for organ donation following death. Certain circumstances, such as HIV infection, active cancer spread, or severe infection, would prohibit organ donation.
Does The Recipient’s Blood And Tissue Type Need To Match Mine?
It is easier to do an organ transplant if the donor and recipient are compatible. The transplant team will administer a battery of tests to establish if your blood and tissue types are compatible with the recipient.
Some medical facilities can transplant an organ even if the blood and tissue types of the donor and recipient do not match. In such a circumstance, the recipient will undergo extra care to prevent their body from rejecting the donor organ.
If I Give An Organ, Would I Have Future Health Issues?
Some organs can be donated in whole or in part without long-term health consequences. You can donate a kidney, pancreas, intestine, liver, or lung. Your body will compensate for the organ or organ component that is absent. As for kidneys, there is some evidence that kidney donors are more likely to suffer hypertension, preeclampsia, and chronic renal disease over the long run. However, data on this is scarce and inconsistent. If donating an organ would pose a short- or long-term risk to your health, you would be unable to do so.
Is There Any Cost Involved In Signing Up As An Organ Donor?
No, signing up as an organ/tissue donor costs nothing.
How Do I Sign Up To Become An Organ Donor?
Contact the Organ Donor Foundation of South Africa (ODF). Contact ODF on Tel: 0800 22 66 11 (toll free), or email: email@example.com
How Do I Obtain An Organ Donor Bracelet, Necklace, or Disk?
Medic Alert and Elixir Medical Shields provide these items, not the Organ Donor Foundation. Please telephone Medic Alert on (021) 425 7328/ 0861 112 979 or Elixir Medical Shields on 0861 115 178 for further information.