The news about Dick Cheney’s heart transplant came as a surprise to me last night, and I suspect to most people. His cardiac disease has been well known in a general sense, but not the decision to seek a transplant. Cheney waited twenty months for the transplant, and has a long road to recovery ahead at 71 years of age:
The Washington Post provides more specifics:
In July 2010, Cheney announced that a small left ventricular assist device (LVAD) had been implanted to help treat congestive heart failure. The device, which included an external system controller, required two rechargeable batteries to help pump blood throughout the body. A few months laterCheney appeared noticeably thinner at the groundbreaking for the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Texas.
“The [heart pump] technology was originally developed to provide a transition,”Cheney told NBC News in an interview in August, “to take somebody who’s reached the point where they needed a transplant, but a transplant wouldn’t immediately be available, so they put this in as a temporary measure.”
Cheney said in the interview that he hadn’t decided whether to seek a heart transplant.
Our family is well versed in transplant issues; my wife has had four transplants — three kidney transplants and a pancreas transplant. The pancreas from 2005 and the kidney from 2007 are still functioning well, which has made the First Mate healthier than perhaps at any other time of our marriage. She no longer has diabetes and her blood-filtering functions are almost normal, which are very large blessings indeed.
However, those come with tradeoffs. The need to take immunosuppressive medication creates a number of side effects that have to be carefully managed, especially in the first few weeks when rejection episodes are most likely. The body produces antibodies to attack foreign tissue, and the immune system has to be dialed down to keep that from happening with the transplanted organ — but this also makes a recipient more likely to get sick or have sustained infections unless the dosages are carefully calibrated, and that has to be done on an individual basis. It’s very much like trading a deadly condition for a chronic but manageable disease, and that continues for the rest of the life of the recipient. At 71, that will be a harder adjustment for Cheney and his family, but obviously a worthwhile one.
We’ll keep the former VP and his family in our prayers today, and I’m sure the readers of Hot Air will do the same.
Addendum: A few weeks ago, the media reported a breakthrough on transplants that involved using the adult stem cells of the donor to treat the recipient and change the body’s immune system so that immunosupression would no longer be necessary. I spoke with the First Mate’s nephrologist, who runs the transplant program at the University of Minnesota, and he told us that this development was still very experimental and had yet to be proven effective in human transplants. He’s cautiously optimistic, but as a useful therapy, that’s still years away.
Update: Just to give people an idea of how tricky immunosuppression can be, the First Mate nearly died three years ago from septicemia resulting from an undiscovered bladder infection, and that was when her transplants and immunosuppression had been stable for at least two years.