Author Amy Silverstein has had a heart transplant—twice. Now she’s dying of cancer. Those facts are related, as she explains in this essay. The procedure that saved her is now killing her:
I gave my all to sustaining my donor hearts despite daunting odds, and the hearts rewarded me with extraordinary years. I have been so lucky.
But now I lower my chin and whisper the words malignant … metastatic … lungs … terminal. It is the end of the road for my heart and me — not because we didn’t achieve and maintain sparkling cardiac health. But because the sorry state of transplant medicine took us down.
Organ transplantation is mired in stagnant science and antiquated, imprecise medicine that fails patients and organ donors. And I understand the irony of an incredibly successful and fortunate two-time heart transplant recipient making this case, but my longevity also provides me with a unique vantage point. Standing on the edge of death now, I feel compelled to use my experience in the transplant trenches to illuminate and challenge the status quo.
Over the last almost four decades a toxic triad of immunosuppressive medicines — calcineurin inhibitors, antimetabolites, steroids — has remained essentially the same with limited exceptions. These transplant drugs (which must be taken once or twice daily for life, since rejection is an ongoing risk and the immune system will always regard a donor organ as a foreign invader) cause secondary diseases and dangerous conditions, including diabetes, uncontrollable high blood pressure, kidney damage and failure, serious infections and cancers. The negative impact on recipients is not offset by effectiveness: the current transplant medicine regimen does not work well over time to protect donor organs from immune attack and destruction.