Last year, 2011 was an excellent year for Brittany Henry. At 24 years of age, she was still alive. And well enough to graduate from the University of Western Ontario, with a specialization in Family Studies. And receive her coveted diploma in person, ready to pursue her dream job of working with hospital patients. All this, 10 years after her life-altering double lung transplant.
Brittany suffered from cystic fibrosis, a chronic and progressive disease in which mucous builds up, clog passages and results in lung infections. There is no cure. She received her lung transplant at the age of 14 from Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, Surgeon-in-Chief at UHN and pioneering lung transplant surgeon-scientist.
“The second I woke up form surgery, I forgot what it was like to have cystic fibrosis in my lungs,” says Brittany. “I didn’t remember the coughing fits, the difficulty in breathing and the lack of energy. For the first time, I felt good.” Brittany had been on oxygen day and night, and was in a wheelchair for two years before her transplant.
Dr. Keshavjee noted that about a couple of decades ago, the likelihood that a child with cystic fibrosis would live until his or her 18th birthday was slim, but that transplantation has changed this reality. He also pointed out that in 1988, Toronto General Hospital (TGH) was the first hospital in the world to successfully transplant the lungs of a patient with cystic fibrosis, and the first hospital in 1986 to successfully perform a double lung transplant.
Advances in organ preservation and repair techniques, suppression of the immune system and the long-term monitoring and care of lung transplant recipients help account for improved survival rates and more transplants, said Dr. Keshavjee. He explained that in the 1980s, transplantation was a high-risk operation, and patients were given an estimate of 50 per cent as a chance of dying from the surgery. At TGH, that number has been reduced to six per cent deaths of lung transplant patients during surgery. TGH performs about 100 lung transplants a year, making it one of the largest programs in the world.
A 2008 study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information found that transplant survival rates have improved, and that more young people with cystic fibrosis are benefitting from the procedure. About a third of all lung transplants are people with cystic fibrosis. The study also noted that the three-year survival rate of lung transplant patients increased from 60 per cent in 1997 to 80 per cent in 2003. At 10 years, about 40 per cent of all cystic fibrosis patients who underwent a transplant are still alive.
“Now the focus on outcomes from transplantation is not just survival – and it is fantastic that more patients are alive! – but it’s that recipients are getting back to meaningful and productive lives,” says Dr. Keshavjee.
Life is indeed looking up for Brittany. “Life is good,” she smiled, adding that, “Hey, I made it 10 years after transplant. I’m no longer the sick kid.”