Coping Emotionally After an Organ Transplant

When most people think about getting an organ transplant, they focus on the obvious physical aspects: the illness, the operation, and the healing. They're less likely to think about the emotional impact. But that can be profound too, both for you and the people around you.

Nearly all people who receive a transplant, experts say, feel elated and experience a sense of relief and hope after a surgery that goes well. But with time, that initial optimism may be tinged with other feelings. You may start to worry about your condition coming back. You may be afraid of organ rejection. Or you may fixate on the uncertainty of the future.

It's perfectly natural to have these feelings. But if these worries take over your life, you need to do something about it.

Guilt After an Organ Transplant

Guilt is a common reaction people have after a transplant. Patients often report thinking a lot about the donor and feeling guilty about benefiting from the donor's death. This feeling can be especially strong for people who became very ill while waiting and prayed or hoped for an organ to become available. After the procedure, some get the feeling that they had been wishing for someone else to die.

One way people come to terms with these feelings is by focusing on the fact that for both the donor family and the recipient the transplant is one way to get a sense of meaning from a death. That understanding, the experts say, can be a source of comfort.

For many people, getting in touch with the donor family can help. To respect privacy, organ donation organizations won't allow you to get in direct contact without the donor family's agreement. But you can at least write a letter that your health care team can pass on to them.

Organ Transplant and Family Issues

Problems with family present another emotional hurdle for many people after a transplant. In most cases, transplants happen rather suddenly, so it's not something you can plan for. As a result, your home life may be turned upside down. Also, you won't be able to predict how you'll feel afterwards.'

In addition, the steroids you will likely be taking can have the effect of a mood amplifier. In the first few weeks, especially, when the doses are highest, the medicine will wind you up and make it hard to sleep. The sudden changes in the family -- and in your behavior -- can be extreme. Just keep in mind that recovery is a process that needs adjustment and time.

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Organ Transplant Disappointment and Frustration

Organ transplants are a very successful therapy, and most people who get them live normal lives. But there still may be bumps in the road to recovery. For some people, those bumps can be hard to handle.

For one thing, you need to keep your expectations from getting too high. It will take time to get back to normal. Not being prepared for that reality can cause disappointment and contribute to depression.

The recovery time can be especially difficult if your transplant is a preemptive transplant. Most people who get a transplant have been very sick and feel much better as soon as the transplant is done. But it's the opposite if you get a preemptive transplant. You may have been on the verge of organ failure. But you may not have had any symptoms before the operation. As a result, you'll feel worse during recovery than you did before you had surgery, and that can make coping difficult.

Getting Help After Organ Transplantation

As you adjust to an organ transplant, some of these feelings may bother you less. Part of living with a transplant is accepting uncertainty.

Experts say it's important to stay optimistic while at the same time accepting that it's impossible to know exactly what's going to happen.

But while living with some uncertainty is necessary, you should never accept depression or constant anxiety as inevitable. If you feel that you're becoming depressed or chronically anxious, talk to your health care provider. Get help.

Many people also find that support groups can make a big difference. In everyday life, you don't run into many people who have had a transplant. By joining a support group, you get to talk to people who are going through the same things that you are. Just meeting people in your position can make a big difference.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on April 30, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:
Barry Friedman, RN, former president of the North American Transplant Coordinators Organization.
Richard Perez, MD, PhD, Department of Surgery, University of California Medical Center at Davis.
Jeffrey D. Punch, MD, associate professor of Surgery, University of Michigan Health System, Ann Arbor.
United Network for Organ Sharing.
Transplant Living.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Partnering with Your Transplant Team: The Patient's Guide to Transplantation, 2004."

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