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21 Things People Don't Tell You About Having Transplant Surgery

"I didn't understand how grateful I could be until someone gave a part of their body to ease suffering in mine." A writer who had a transplant to save his sight gives his perspective.

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1. Being told you need transplant surgery is incredibly humbling.

And I don't mean #humbled, like a pop star boastfully posting an Instagram picture of the Grammy they just won. I mean genuinley humbled.

Partly, this is because its darkly kind of comic for a doctor to look at you and essentially say, "Your body is so bad at being alive that there are dead people better at it than you." But mostly it's because you suddenly become enormously reliant on the astonishing selflessness of someone you probably don't even know.

2. You'll get overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.

I didn't understand how grateful I could be until someone gave part of their body to ease suffering in mine.

3. And you'll be overwhelmed by the kindness of friends and family too.

When you're waiting for a transplant, you'll be astonished by how many friends and family members support you or even ask if they can donate.

When I was told I needed a transplant to save my sight, my elderly grandparents went into a high street opticians and asked if they could donate their eyes.

4. Transplants aren't just for organs

People don't just need kidney or liver transplants. Transplant surgeries can range from small gum tissue grafts to double-lung and heart transplants. Skin, bone, bone marrow, tendons and even hands can all be transplanted.


5. The waiting is the hardest part.

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No time passes as slowly as your time on the transplant waiting list: You can be on it for years.

According to the NHS, the average wait for a kidney transplant is 3 years, which is too long for some people.

6. Which makes being told it's time for your transplant the most emotionally complex moment of your life.

You're overjoyed that you're going to get the operation you need. But you're nervous because you're about to undergo serious surgery. And, unless your operation will use a living donor, you feel guilty that someone selfless has died. It's a real emotional roller-coaster.

7. Contrary to what movies may say, you won't take on the personality of your donor. Or have flashbacks to their memories.


Despite the urban legends that say otherwise, this won't happen. You'll still worry it will, though.

8. In fact, you probably won't obsess about your donor's identity at all.

Before my operation, I thought I'd spend the rest of my life questioning who my donor was. But I don't. The only information I was allowed to know is that the donation I received was "age appropriate".


9. But you probably will obsess about rejection

After your transplant, when you're not taking medicine or changing your dressing, you think about rejection. You can't help it. Every time you twinge or itch, your brain screams, "OH MY GOD IS MY TRANSPLANT REJECTING?!"

10. Although most people can donate, some can't.


If you're not sure if you can join the donor register, you probably can. But there are some restrictions on some health conditions (I have one that means I'm banned from giving blood and face limitations on other donations, for example). In the UK, most religious groups support donation too.

11. And although most people can receive transplants, some can't.

Just like most people can donate, most people can receive a transplant if they need one. But patients do need to be well enough for the operation to go ahead. Serious illnesses can make a transplant unviable.

12. Transplants are not an instant and complete cure.

My transplant was relatively minor – a cornea, to stop me going blind – and even that required round-the-clock aftercare. What's more, it took 2 years of tests and follow-up procedures before I had decent vision in my eye. And recipients of major organ transplants have it far harder: They often have to take drugs to suppress their immune systems for the rest of their lives.


13. Certain transplants mean you can't do certain sports

Before my surgery I was told it would prevent me being able to legally hold a professional boxing licence in Europe or North America.

14. But having a transplant can open up a whole new world of exercise.

The Transplant Games are a kind of mini-Olympics for transplant patients that encourage us to keep fit. Having a transplant could even encourage you to do more sport than you did before.

15. Medically, your race can be a big disadvantage.

If you need a transplant, you have a much better chance of getting it if you're white. The number of non-white donors is so low in Britain that BME patients wait a year longer for kidney transplants.

16. You'll always have a reason to carry on

People who need transplants often have painful, long-term health troubles that can make it tough to stay positive. But once you've had a transplant, you'll want to keep going: You need to live the life your donor wasn't able to.


17. One donor can help up to 50 recipients.

That's right: 50.

18. Doctors really do work incredibly hard to save the lives of people on the donor register.

The idea that medical staff won't work as hard to save someone's life if they know the patient is a registered organ donor terrifies potential donors, and makes potential recipients feel guilty and ashamed. It's not true, and is probably the most damaging myth about transplants.

19. Transplants don't always last forever.


My post-transplant appointments have mainly been routine for a few years now but I was recently surprised to hear that the transplant I received may not last forever. Sometimes transplants "wear out" and have to be replaced with new ones.

20. Saying "I've had a transplant!" will make people make you tea.

In the months after your operation, whenever there's a discussion about who should answer the door or make a cup of tea, you can always win by using a whiny voice to say "But I've had a transplant!"

21. We are in a donor crisis right now.

New UK figures show that 429 people died last year waiting for a transplant. Even worse, the number of donors has dropped.

So sign up. Registering takes about 2 minutes and is the quickest, kindest thing you can do today.