Many years ago, when I first registered for a kidney transplant, a nurse told me: “Transplantation does not cure kidney illness.” This struck me as odd. Having a new, healthy kidney filtering my blood sure seemed like a cure. What exactly did this nurse mean?
Even if we do receive a healthy, new kidney, the conditions that brought about kidney failure haven’t necessarily changed. If someone loses their kidneys due to a pervasive condition like diabetes or lupus, they still have those conditions even after a transplant. And those conditions need to be managed on a continual basis.
Diabetics who are lucky enough to have a transplant of both the kidney and the pancreas, certainly have a new lease on life. But they must still be aware of their weight and blood sugar to keep the new kidney healthy. This can be a challenge as transplant medications stimulate the appetite and raise blood sugar.
If someone lost their kidneys due to hypertension, they especially need to continually monitor the blood pressure after the transplant. Hypertension is often called the silent killer because it’s so easy to ignore. But if we want the new kidney to last, it’s important to stay on top of our blood pressure readings.
Conditions like IgA nephropathy and Focal Segmental GlomeruloSclerosis (FSGS), unlike diabetes or lupus, are not systemic illnesses that affect the whole body. These conditions involve inflammation of the kidneys. However, IgA nephropathy and FSGS can recur in the new kidney as well. Why some patients have recurrence and others do not is not well understood, especially since little is known about why these conditions occur in the first place. But we can reduce the inflammation and stress on the kidneys and work to preserve renal function. Personally, I worked through recurrent FSGS in my own transplant.
Besides the same challenges patients had with their health before transplantation, they should also anticipate new issues. While it is right after transplantation that we’re most likely to experience acute rejection, any transplant can reject at any time. Many people are under the impression that immunosuppressive medications are only needed in the short term, and that after a certain amount of time has passed, the kidney will “take” and the medications will no longer be necessary. This is not the case. With very few exceptions, patients need to takeimmunosuppressive medications for as long as they have their transplant.
Transplant patients should understand that the new kidney is not going to last forever. A patient may enjoy a decade or even two with their transplanted kidney functioning well. For older recipients the new kidney may last for the rest of their lives, but for young people it is a stop gap measure until they need dialysis or another transplant. And a temporary measure is certainly not a cure.
The new kidney will face challenges from both the patient’s own immune system and the transplant medications. While transplant medications can turn down the immune response, they don’t turn off the immune system completely. Over time, minor pathways of the immune system can cause serious rejection of the kidney with scarring and fibrosis.
Transplant medications are directly toxic to the kidneys. In fact, they are so nephrotoxic that transplant patients who receive an organ other than a kidney may develop serious kidney illness and can even experience kidney failure due to transplant medications. (Reducing nephrotoxicity of transplant medications will be a subject for another blog entry.) There may come a time when nephrotoxicity is no longer an issue. Each new generation of transplant medications shows some improvement – from Imuran to Cyclosporine to Tacrolimus. But for now, nephrotoxicity is a necessary evil of transplantation.
Kidney transplant patients also need to be vigilant to new concerns with their health. Turning down the immune system increases the risk for cancer and infections. There are also issues with post-transplant diabetes and gastrointestinal distress. Dealing with the side effects of anti-rejection medications will be the subject of future blogs.
Despite all of the issues that transplant patients face, nothing beats a working kidney. It’s a great relief on the body to be able to filter out waste again. After years of high creatinine levels, I never thought I’d see a creatinine of 1.3 again, but that’s exactly what I saw on my first blood test after the transplant. Living without a major organ is hard, and having a working kidney is a great blessing. Transplant may not be a cure, but it’s the next chapter in our journey.
About Dr. Henderson:
As the Founder of Holistic Kidney (Connecticut), Dr. Jenna Henderson has been studying renal illness since 1993. A kidney patient herself, Dr. Henderson knows the process of kidney failure first hand and applies her experience to help kidney patients worldwide. As a naturopathic doctor from the University of Bridgeport, she works hard to help kidney patients live a long, happy life and stay off dialysis. Her safe and effective therapies are holistic and natural, and they help to preserve kidney function naturally. Her advice is sought by many patients and practitioners when other approaches to kidney illness have failed. She has been interviewed on public radio and published in Natural Medicine Journal. Nearly 3,500 people follow her updates on Holistic Kidney on Facebook. Visit her website at http://www.holistic-kidney.com/ or reach her email@example.com.
More information on kidney transplantation:
National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Illnesses
Dialysis or kidney transplantation — which is right for me? (Beyond the Basics)
Wikipedia on Kidney Transplantation