To mark the start of Organ Donation Week 2023, My Mind News explores the mental health aspects of solid organ transplantation in recipients.
Organ transplantation is a big deal. For some, it can be life-changing and, for many, life saving. But although being on a waiting list for a transplant may be stressful for all concerned, the mental health impacts of being the recipient of a solid human organ don’t end the day of the operation itself.
The psychological impacts of receiving an organ transplant can last many years after the event. And although being on the waiting list for a transplant is stressful enough, there is another mountain to climb on the other side of transplantation that is often overlooked.
Mental health impacts of transplantation
Firstly, there is the ‘coming down’ factor to consider. After many months of waiting for the possibly lifesaving call for a transplant operation to proceed, it is likely that the recipient will have spent most, if not all, that entire time in a heightened state of stress and anxiety – possibly overwhelmed by what happens if they do (or do not) receive the lifesaving operation in time.
Having endured that state of anxiety for so long and also experiencing invasive surgery to receive the transplanted organ, many patients experience a degree of trauma as a result, which is, in many respects, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is best treated by a medical or psychological professional trained in PTSD and psychological trauma.
Secondly, the recipient will often replace the mental space left by having had the transplant with other concerns. These can often relate to the fears of organ rejection. Having lived through the trauma of the wait and the surgery itself, there is often a void that patients unwittingly fill with other anxious thoughts and behaviors – not willingly but simply due to habitual behaviors ingrained after possibly years of even a life living with chronic illness.
Such behaviors can be so entrenched that the psychological makeup of that individual naturally attempts to replace one form of anxiety with another. After all, it is all that has been known and become ‘normalized’ for many years. Again, dealing with such issues can take professional intervention and, left untreated, can exacerbate over time.
Lastly, the more existential but still human psychological response to receiving a transplant can be the ‘survivor’s guilt’ complex. This is particularly prevalent in patients who receive heart or lung transplants – that is, in cases where the donor is no longer alive or can be thanked or shown gratitude in person.
The recipient can often experience the psychological guilt associated with the ‘why me’ syndrome – why did I receive the organ over someone else, why did I have to be the one needing a transplant, why did that person have to lose their life?
While in transplantation, it is not the case that someone gave up their life so that someone else could be saved. Yet, this simple fact can often get lost in the mindset of someone who has been through a lifesaving transplant experience.
Going through a transplant is one of the most worrying events someone can experience in their lives. For many, surgery can mark the watershed between ‘before and after’ – a single life divided by a period of illness and anxiety followed by a time getting used to just how monumentally things have changed.
For some, that process comes easily and can be reconciled relatively easily. Yet for others, the watershed is merely a turn in the road, which starts them down another avenue still fraught with difficulties to negotiate – ‘bumps in the road,’ if you will.
It is essential to consider that while transplant recipients might have been treated, transplants are not cures and are not a magic bullet that ends all suffering entirely; often, the psychological forces at play can be just as impactful as they were before transplant, although they simply take a different form.
Later this week, My Mind News will speak to someone who has lived through a double lung transplant and written a book about their experiences. Keep checking back with My Mind News this week for that. In the meantime, make sure your loved ones are aware of your intentions when it comes to transplantation after your death – you could save the lives of nine others tomorrow with your generosity today.
Have you or someone you know had an organ transplant? How did you/they deal with the process before and after the surgery? Let us know in the comments.