A South African patient who received a transplant through organ donation has shared his joy at getting a second lease of life.
Justin Anthony, 36, had a double lung transplant at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi in August after doctors found a donor who was a perfect match.
Only a few months ago, Mr Anthony could not even make a cup of coffee without gasping for breath, and his condition worsened to the point that he had to leave his job as a maths teacher at a school in Al Ain.
He was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary hypertension in 2013 and would now be dead if not for the transplant.
“I don’t know who donated their lungs to me – whose lungs that I am using today to breathe and to live – I wish I could reach out to the family to thank them,” he told The National.
Pulmonary hypertension is a rare disease that occurs when pressure in the blood vessels from the heart to the lungs is too high. Putting strain on the right side of the heart, it can cause inflammation and eventually result in heart failure.
Running out of options
In early October 2021, Mr Anthony was put on medication to help manage pulmonary hypertension through a subcutaneous infusion.
Despite medication, both his lungs and heart were still failing.
“I had the most difficult experience and would gladly go through a transplant operation 100 times than go on living with a subcutaneous infusion,” he said. “I can’t describe the pain. It was torment for me.”
Dr Fadi Hamed was the head of the team that performed the transplant and said Mr Anthony had just a few months to live – a year at most.
“Despite maximum medical treatment, he would have reached a point where the lungs completely fail,” he said.
Dr Hamed said his heart would have also eventually shut down.
Finding a donor
The waiting list for lung transplants at the clinic already has five people on it, and according to Dr Hamed the list is "growing".
"We are seeing more advanced lung diseases. We have patients with different disease entities that at one point reach a level which need to be listed.
At our transplant list you will see a combination of different ages, different diseases, different blood groups for a single or double lung transplant. At this moment we have five patients waiting and the number is growing."
In the past two months, doctors have performed four double lung transplants on terminally ill patients.
"Without the donors, we are not able to save lives," he said.
"Our hope is always to grow the number of the donors to increase the capacity over the next two years with more referral and more international patients and provide appropriate care to them."
On Tuesday, at the International Conference for Initiatives on Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation in Abu Dhabi, Mr Anthony said he feels like he can breathe for the first time and is ready to get on with his life and go back to teaching.
“I used to fear going out of the house. I didn’t want to be a burden on anybody but a short walk in the mall was very difficult and I had to depend on my wife a lot,” he said.
Importance of registering as a donor
Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi began their transplantation programme from deceased donors in 2017 and have so far have had more than 100 donors from the UAE.
Dr Bashir Sankari, head of the clinic's transplant programme, said they have so far conducted 318 organ transplants.
This includes 160 kidney transplants, 126 liver, ten lung, 12 heart and ten pancreas transplants.
With kidney transplants, around 60 per cent come from living related donors.
“Awareness is very important because not only people in the community, but many people in the professional community are not aware that you can register as a donor,” he said.
A single donor can save the lives of up to eight people, and tissue can help the lives of close to a 100.
In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the lives of 400 people from different nationalities have been saved through organ donation.
Since 2017, there have been 116 deceased donors, the youngest of which was only a few weeks old.
A new drive hopes to boost the number of people signing up to become a donor under the National Programme for Organ Donation and Transplantation — or Hayat, which means life.
UAE residents can register to become donors through the Ministry of Health's website.