Lung transplant surgery can be a mean to improve quality of life for some but is certainly a life-saver procedure for others. It just depends on the disease of the patients (COPD, pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, etc). When someone’s disease is so advanced that they can’t breathe, there is nothing to replace the lungs like for other organs. Kidneys can be replaced by dialysis and a mechanical heart can do the work for a weak heart. In lung transplant all we have is oxygen. Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) being the most unpredictable disease a lung transplant would be its only cure. Unfortunately, lung transplant comes with a relatively higher risk for short and long term complications compared with other organs.
The main reason behind that is the lung is the only organ exposed to the outside world. The liver and kidneys are deep inside the abdominal cavity, no worry there. The heart, despite being attached to the lungs, is not exposed like them. It is well protected inside the chest. Basically, what I mean is the lungs make contact with the air we breathe plus everything else found in the ambient air. It could be pollutants, irritants, mold spores or whatever else found in the air where you are at. This is why it is so critical for a lung transplant recipient to be aware of his surrounding and not be at a place that they should not be (like a barn animal). Every dusty area or known to be dusty task (sanding, house cleaning, even gardening, etc) are usually prohibited or discouraged by your transplant team. When in doubt with an activity or an area, ask your lung transplant team. Listen to them; they know what to do to help you stay as healthy as possible!
Every single respiratory symptom reported by a patient is usually taken seriously by the transplant team. This is especially true during the winter when it is flu season. Any benign respiratory virus for the general population could potentially be real bad for lung transplant patients. The easiest way we can identify the kind of virus, if any, is to swab the patient’s nose and have the lab look for respiratory viruses. It is not the best experience for the patient but it can save a lot of trouble (if you don’t know what it is, its like sticking a Q-tips 2-3 inches in each nostrils and then swab…). It usually makes the eyes teary!
We have caught some cases of influenza last winter that we were able to successfully treat. I am just afraid that a same patient will not call us in the future if they have the same symptoms because they are afraid of the nasal swab. Please don’t do that. That could be a mistake. You went through lung transplant surgery and its aftermath. A nasal swab should be a walk in the breeze.
This was a very quick overview of lung transplant main complication. The goal was to make you understand that you are always at risk of breathing something potentially harmful. Being informed will make you more careful without becoming paranoiac. Follow your lung transplant team advice; they are the expert to keep you out of trouble!