A YOUNG County Limerick man has become the first person in Ireland to receive a liver and double lung transplant.
And now Robert Sheahan from Askeaton has become a national advocate for organ donation.
The 29-year-old underwent the long and complicated transplantation operation last June and is now well on the road to recovery.
Two surgical transplant teams – one from the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital’s National Heart and Lung Unit and the other from St Vincent’s University Hospital’s National Liver Transplant Unit – worked for around ten hours on the life-saving operation.
Robert was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF) as a baby and despite having the chronic disease, he led a relatively healthy life until his mid-20s when his condition deteriorated.
Robert said, “In the summer of 2018, I had the first of three lung collapses and had to be rushed to hospital in a pretty dramatic way. In December 2018, after the third collapse, I was transferred by ambulance to the Mater Hospital which became my home for the next eight months.”
Like many people living with CF, Robert had multiple organ issues.
According to Lars Nölke, Head of Heart and Lung transplantation unit at the Mater, Robert’s lungs were failing when he was admitted to the Dublin hospital. However, his liver function was so poor that he would not have been able to withstand a lung transplant only.
The transplant team at the Mater began discussing the potential to transplant both liver and lungs at the same time with the team from St Vincent’s.
Lars Nölke said: “This was a life-saving treatment for Robert as I don’t believe he would have been able to leave the hospital without the double lung and liver transplant. The team here at the Mater worked very closely with our colleagues at St Vincent’s planning the protocols for every scenario imaginable. After much discussion and hard work, we were ready to put Robert on the active transplant list.”
Having waited in hospital for eight months, remarkably, on the same day in June that Robert was put on the active list, donated organs became available. The teams from both hospitals moved into action with the SVUH team decamping to the Mater with their specialist equipment ready for a long and complicated day in theatre.
Emir Hoti, Director of National Liver Transplant Programme at SVUH got to work first of all, transplanting the liver.
Mr Hoti said: “Robert has benefitted the most of any person I’ve seen or treated for transplant. The fact that this is a first for Ireland shows how far we have come in terms of our transplant programme. The operation itself, while complicated, was a success and our collaboration with the team at the Mater was superb.”
While Mr Hoti was performing the liver transplant on Robert, Mr Nölke was simultaneously transplanting the heart from the same donor to another transplant patient.
When the liver transplant was complete, Lars Nölke and the Mater team took over to transplant first one lung, and then a second. Approximately 15 medical professionals, from anesthesiologists to scrub nurses were involved in the ten-hour operation.
The operation was a success and a few days later, on his 29th birthday Robert Sheahan “came to” in the ICU unit.
He spent the next two months recovering in the Mater and has now been discharged home, but is making weekly visits to the Mater for follow up.
“Now I am really beginning to see the benefits of the double transplant, and the substantial improvements it has made to my health. Recently a company who supplied me with the oxygen equipment I had to use regularly came to take it all away as I no longer need it and that was a real rite of passage.
“I’m very grateful to the person who decided to donate their organs – without them, I might have a very different prognosis, instead I am looking forward to being able to travel and see some of the world next year,” said Robert.
Professor Jim Egan Director HSE Organ Donation Transplant Ireland said, “Organ donation saves lives. Robert’s remarkable journey and recovery and the fact that this is the first double lung and liver transplant in Ireland is only made possible through organ donation. We would ask everyone to discuss this life-saving issue with their families.”