We should all be concerned about this, shouldn’t we? But it’s particularly important to transplantees because we take medication that causes us to be immuno-suppressed (vs. emotionally suppressed, though there may be some of that, too).
Here’s how the post-transplant world works. The natural inclination of your body is to reject someone else’s body parts, to attack them as though they were huge splinters. Your body is just heeding the call of survival as best it knows how. It’s just doing it’s job.
Those who have been fortunate enough to receive the gift of transplanted life live in fear, or at least hyper vigilance, of two things: rejection and infection. They often go hand in hand. An infection can cause a rejection, and vice versa. And apparently every lung transplant recipient experiences rejection at some point to some degree. Some survive better than others. The statistics say I have a 50-50 chance of being alive 5 years post transplant, and a 10% chance of surviving a decade. The diminishing returns are largely due to rejection.
To keep rejection at bay, tranplantees take a host of anti-rejection drugs, steroids which lower their immune systems in order to dampen the body’s desire to reject the new organ. These drugs make us much more vulnerable to other people’s germs. We live on a teeter-totter balanced by battling microbes.
So, when I read about the research study conducted at Quinnipac University in Connecticut that determined that “toothbrushes left in communal loos are discovered to…be containing fecal matter almost 60% of the total time” and that “researchers involved in this study claimed that almost billions of the people could be brushing their teeth contaminated with the poo of other people” – well, I had to warn people. Especially the transplant community.
What can I do? I could sleep with my toothbrush, or try to avoid shared bathrooms. But what I can’t do is live in a bubble. In fact, my doctors encouraged me not to try. After all, I have not come this far just to hide.
Instead I unconsciously began to cultivate obsessive-compulsive disorder skills. I am constantly on the lookout for germs coming my way. I can feel my subtle reprogramming, retraining myself to see everything I do, every interaction, as a threat. I have to. Sneezing babies, shared doorknobs, packed elevators- they are nothing to the healthy. But to me they can be the beginning of the end. And sure, I can wear a mask and gloves wherever I go, just to be safe. But then I’m dressing like Michael Jackson.
And the reality is that masks are anti-social. I find I have to keep explaining that I don’t have a disease, but others might. I think people see me wearing a mask and think ebola. Understandable. That is their frame of reference.
So, if you see me backing away from you or your kid, please don’t take it personally. I used to see you just as a person. I still do, and perhaps one I respect, love and admire. But I also see you as a germ bearing threat. Any transplantee would.
Photo by Martin Howard. http://bit.ly/1Mk8RTu. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). Retrieved June 6, 2015.