April 7 is Green Shirt Day, to raise awareness about organ donation. Each year, The Leader seeks to interview someone impacted by organ donation.
Wanda Leighton from Marten Beach is a grandmother, walker, and double lung transplant recipient.
“I feel really good,” she says. “I feel 100 per cent better than I did before. I can’t believe how well I feel.”
Asked for an example, she adds, “I’ve always been a walker, and I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t play with the grand kids.”
She used to enjoy rough-housing with them on the floor, but before the transplant she could get down on the ground, but not back up, let alone wrestle.
“As long as I can keep going, I’m going to keep going,” says Leighton. “I learned that from my dad.”
Leighton’s goal going forward is to be there for her dad, her husband, her kids, and grandkids.
Asked how long she had lung problems, she says, “I was actually born with under-developed lungs.”
Undiagnosed asthma and sever allergies which caused allergy symptoms added to the problem. These were exasperated by smoking.
“The lung transplant got rid of the asthma, but the allergies are still there,” says Leighton.
As early as 2011, Leighton’s Slave Lake doctor told her she’d need a lung transplant eventually. She was referred to a pulmonologist in Edmonton.
My Alberta Health says, “Respirologists, sometimes referred to as pulmonologists, are medical doctors who further specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of lung disease, such as asthma, emphysema, or pneumonia. Respirologists perform tests to check how well a person is breathing.”
From 2011 to 2022, Leighton was assessed every four to six weeks. The respirologist referred her to the transplant team; however, this took a while.
In 2022, Leighton finally got her appointment with the transplant unit.
The next step was living in Edmonton for one month to do an intensive – ‘pre-hab’ (pre-habilitation). This was physiotherapy five days a week for a couple of hours a day at the University of Alberta Hospital, which has a specialized unit.
“It is hard labour,” says Leighton. “It’s well worth it.”
The point of the pre-hab is to make sure that the bodies of people on the lung transplant list will be able to survive the surgery and thrive once the transplant has happened.
There were “a lot of meetings” before getting on the transplant list. These are with transplant coordinators, dietitians, social workers, psychologists, physical therapists, respiratory therapists, transplant surgeons, etc. There is also the option of spiritual support.
Once a person is on the transplant list, all they can do is wait.
“I was accepted on the transplant list on March 3, 2022,” says Leighton. “And I had the transplant the end of November.”
This is a very quick turnaround for a transplant. One of the friends Leighton made in pre-hab is still waiting. Some people are on the list for three or four years.
There are many factors that go into matching a donor with a recipient. The size of the lungs, blood type, and within this, who on the list needs it the most.
Leighton has what she calls ‘an odd-ball blood type’ which only seven per cent of the population have. For her, this sped up the wait, but it could have gone the other way.
When people have diseased lungs they get bigger, says Leighton. However, there are other factors with lung size, so in general the donor and recipient have to be similar in size.
Leighton is a slight woman of medium height.
Donor size also impacts other types of organ donation. In past years, The Leader has interviewed two Slave Lake area residents who are living liver donors. Both are similar in size to Leighton. The one donated the larger lobe of her liver to her uncle, who is larger than her. The other donated, the smaller lobe to a child as an anonymous donation.
With a double lung transplant, the donor is deceased. Deceased donations are always anonymous. Living donations can be open or anonymous.
Many people who need lungs also need a new heart, says Leighton. She was lucky in this respect and only needed lungs. Generally, people who need both receive them from the same donor at the same time.
Organ transplant is a major surgery. Leighton had hers at the University of Alberta Hospital in Edmonton. Leighton’s scar follows the bottom of her ribs. The surgeons cut under the pectorals and between the diaphragm. They then spread the ribs apart to remove the damaged lungs and replace them with the healthy ones. She also had tubes out both sides, to drain any fluid which built up around the lungs.
All organ transplant recipients are on anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives.
“You have to hide the new organs,” says Leighton.
Leighton went into surgery in late November 2022. She was discharged from hospital on December 15.
This was “a week and a half early,” she says.
The next stage was out-patient recovery in Edmonton.
“I had to be in Edmonton for three months,” says Leighton. “I was only there for two. I got to come home early.”
However, she is still recovering.
“I am not supposed to lift more than a bottle of pop,” she says. “No pulling. No pushing. No lifting.”
That’s for the first four months. For the first year, she’s not allowed to do anything strenuous.
Every day, Leighton has to take her blood pressure, weight, pulse and do lung tests.
Leighton’s husband Randy calls the lung test ‘her moose call.’
Leighton is on a lot of medicines. These include anti rejection, anti viral, antibiotics, blood thinners, stomach acid, medicine to combat essential tremors, bone density pills, and supplements.
As she heals, “some of these will be trimmed down,” she says.
Every two weeks, she has phone or in-person appointments with the transplant doctors. These will also decrease as she heals.
Leighton is very thankful to the donor and the donor’s family.
“There’s no better gift you can ever receive,” she says. “It’s one hell of a gift.”
In 2020, Leighton had a lung collapse. At the time, her husband got all of the children together to make sure that they knew that if she didn’t make it, all of her usable organs would be donated.
Once things settle down, Leighton is going to find out if she can still be on the organ registry as an organ recipient.
“Just ask people to please talk to their families about being a donor,” says Leighton. They can sign up at a registries office or on myhealth.alberta.ca.
Depending how someone dies and the health of the organs, deceased donors can donate eyes, lungs, liver, kidneys, heart, skin, bone marrow, etc. Living donors in Alberta can donate one lobe of their liver, a kidney, or a lobe of their lung.
Organ transplants are more common than one might think. For example, one of Leighton’s daughter’s friend’s sons in Slave Lake is about 15 years old. He is waiting for a kidney transplant.
Wanda Leighton, from Marten Beach, had a double lung transplant at the end of November 2022. She’s doing very well.
by Pearl Lorentzen
April 14, 2023
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