'I thought I’d have to die at home': Double lung transplant survivor's new lease on life

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Four years after Shaun McLaughlin's double lung transplant, the couple welcomed a set of twin girls into the world.
Four years after Shaun McLaughlin's double lung transplant, the couple welcomed a set of twin girls into the world.
  • Saturday is World Lung Day.
  • Shaun McLaughlin has had a double lung transplant and now lives his life with "new meaning".
  • UCT’s Heart and Lung Centre Associate Professor Greg Calligaro says South Africa is a country with notoriously low organ donation rates.

Saturday marks World Lung Day, a day for lung health advocacy and action.

For a Polokwane man who underwent a double lung transplant, it’s a day that reminds him of his second chance, and to live his life with "new meaning".

Shaun McLaughlin knows all too well what it means to not be able to breathe with ease.

READ | Cape Town couple survives organ transplants, gives birth to healthy baby girl

"I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at a very young age. This chronic condition damaged my lungs to such an extent that I needed a double lung transplant,"  the 36-year-old told News24.

Shaun was on the waiting list for a new pair of lungs for nine months, during which time he was on oxygen 24/7, and wheelchair bound.

"In 2011, I had been hospitalised at Milpark Hospital with yet another chest infection which caused me to have breathing difficulties. At the time, the medication I needed would cost about R7 000 extra per month, which the medical aid wasn’t going to pay anymore.

"I remember distinctly messaging my wife, saying I need to come home as I couldn’t continue paying the extra money for my medication," he said.

Shaun even went as far as to inform his doctor that he wanted to stop taking medication because he couldn’t afford it.

READ | South Africans raise funds for Cosmo City father who was left a quadriplegic after robbery

He said:

I thought I’d have to die at home. The doctor at the time told me to not worry as they had a set of lungs for me, and I would be undergoing surgery on the evening of 6 May.

Eight hours of surgery later and he says he is "eternally grateful" that he's been given a second chance at life.

"Just to climb a flight of stairs a few years ago seemed like an impossible task, these days I’m climbing mountains with my wife, Alet," he said.

Four years after his transplant, the couple welcomed twin girls into the world.

Due to his cystic fibrosis, the couple made use of assisted reproductive technology (ART) to conceive the twins.

Alet said the journey leading up to her husband’s transplant was very stressful.

"Being newlyweds, we didn’t really know how much time we would have together, nor did we know if he would survive the transplant," she said.

'I can do all the activities a dad would want to do'

According to Alet, the fact that they get to do normal everyday things as a family, makes her husband’s second chance more special.  

"I can do all the activities a dad would want to do with his family thanks to a donor family giving consent to organ donation," Shaun says.

Dr Paul Williams a critical care specialist in heart and lung transplants at Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, said successful lung transplants were one of the "more challenging areas" in the field of transplantation, largely due to the complexity and length of the operation.

"The lung, with its associated lymph nodes and specialised alveolar macrophage system, is one of the body’s largest immune organs capable of eliciting a brisk and robust immune response to antigen challenge,  he said.

Williams added that the very first successful human lung transplant was performed in 1963 - before the first human heart transplant was done.

He added:

Lung transplants as a treatment option for certain diseases and conditions started in 2000 in the Johannesburg private sector, and Groote Schuur Hospital is the only public hospital that offers lung transplants to state patients.

   

UCT Heart and Lung Centre Associate Professor Greg Calligaro said there were only two lung transplant programmes in South Africa - one at the Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg for private patients, and Groote Schuur Hospital for private and public patients. 

"On average, both units transplant 10 patients a year, but this has been reduced in recent times due to the effects of Covid on the health system and on donor numbers," he said.

Calligaro added South Africa was a country with notoriously low organ donation rates.

"At any time, we have 10 patients waiting for a transplant on our waiting list in Cape Town," he said. 

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