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Life after organ transplant can be complicated but rewarding

Organ Donation

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH)— Getting the call that a donor organ is available is the lifeline for thousands of men, women, and children on the national transplant waiting list. But life after transplant can lead to complications and surprising outcomes.

At a quick glance, it looks like lifelong friends reuniting. Don Pritchard and Christine Sicignano though were strangers nearly a year ago.

“We didn’t know each other beforehand,” said Pritchard.

Their bond grew when Christine donated a kidney after learning of Don’s critical need.

Related: Connecticut hospital offers bold approach to heart transplants

“It started with the kidney, yes,” said Pritchard. “In the beginning, I wanted to stay in touch because this woman saved my life.”

Meeting after surgery led to an unexpected deep friendship.

“She’ll text me a question, every now and then I’ll be like ‘hey what’s up'” said Prichard.

“Or he’ll text me ‘hey what’s up,'” said Sicignano.

It’s nearly a year out.

“At this point, it’s almost like it never happened because I feel normal,” said Pritchard.

But doctors tweaking the daily regimen of medication is Don’s new normal.

“I do have one of the anti-rejection meds that creates an elevated blood sugar in me so I do have insulin to take,” said Pritchard.

Christine is also monitored closely.

Related: Organ donors are needed. Should you be an organ donor?

“They just check on me to make sure I’m okay,” said Sicignano.

Life dramatically improves for most patients after transplant but there is still a risk of complications like infection or rejection. And the complications multiply when they receive a cadaver organ.

“What the difference is in a deceased donor setting is that organs have to undergo a ton of stress,” said Dr. Greg Tietjen, Yale School of Medicine. “The storage on ice, traveling to another place. When it’s a living donor, that living donor is in the OR across the hall, the organ gets taken out and immediately transplanted in.”

Dr. Greg Tietjen at Yale School of Medicine is working with United Kingdom researchers in a groundbreaking study aimed at leveling the playing field.

“To be able to take the organ on the right and make it look like the organ on the left,” said Tietjen.

The problem?

“The blood is not being delivered throughout the organ,” said Tietjen.

Their focus on ‘impaired’ kidneys in the laboratory led to developing treatments that can remove clots and restore blood flow.

“It turns out that there was very basic drugs that are routinely used by clinicians now in the treatment of stroke that we could administer to these organs outside the body,” said Tietjen.

Plans are now underway for a Phase 1 clinical trial in a year or so with a limited number of patients.

“It would mean less complications post-transplant, shorter hospital stays, most importantly it will mean better access to organs,” said Tietjen.”Hopefully, make the experience of someone that receives the deceased donor organ like this much more similar to the experience of someone who receives a living donor.”

Dr. Tietjen points out the need for donors is just as critical for research as it is for transplant.

Christine Sicignano has no regrets.

“I want people to know how rewarding it is to be able to help somebody on this level,” said Sicignano.

It will be a year ago for Don’s transplant on March 26.  Both Don and Christine live in Guilford. 

Donate Life of American reports that since 1988, 750,000 transplants have taken place. And while 95% of Americans are in favor of being a donor, only 58% are registered.

Here in Connecticut, 46 percent of us are organ donors.

Next Monday, Feb, 24, at 11 p.m. we wrap up our special series on organ donation with giving the gift of life and what it took to save the life of a 15-month-old boy. It’s a story you will not want to miss.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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