2011 Transplant Reunion
-- Laurie Chiasson again headed for Omaha from her home in Louisiana. This time, it was for a much different reason than when she first came here seven years ago. The 2011 trip was for The Nebraska Medical Center's annual transplant reunion. Seven years ago, the trip to Omaha was because her son needed a liver transplant.
"He was 110 days old when he got his transplant," she said.
Baby Anthony's donor was his father, Mark who stayed home in Louisiana for this year's reunion. Laurie says Anthony and Mark look almost exactly alike -- right down to the scars from the transplant surgery.
No longer a baby, Anthony getting ready to start second grade.
"You would never know he had a transplant," Chiasson said of her son. "It's never held him back. When people ask him about the scar, he just says, 'When I was a baby, I had a liver transplant. No big deal.'"
The reunion is a big deal for kids like Anthony and their parents. For the children who've been through the life-saving surgeries, it's a chance to meet others who share their unique experiences. For the parents, it's a similar connection.
"We have a level of worry that others probably don't have," Chiasson said of her fellow transplant parents. "Those other parents get it. We give each other support."
Support is an important part of the transplant program at the medical center. That support comes full circle at the reunion.
"For the transplant team, the physicians, nurses and coordinators, the reunion is a celebration," said Alan Langnas, D.O., chief of transplantation at The Nebraska Medical Center. "We have seen these patients through the most challenging times in their lives and at the reunion, we see them growing up, graduating from school, having children or grandchildren."
The 2011 transplant reunion drew 279 patients, and more than 900 patients, family members and volunteers; more than any year before.
Children at the transplant reunion enjoyed special activities including games and arts and crafts. Adults will be able to attend educational sessions geared specifically toward their post-transplant needs. The day will wrap up with group pictures featuring each transplant "class" as classified by type of transplant/organ.
The medical center's kidney transplant program began in 1970; its liver transplant program in 1985 and the intestinal transplant program in 1990.
In the years since, 4,821 kidney, liver, pancreas, heart and intestinal transplants have been performed at the medical center.
Again this year, the transplant reunion featured a special educational and social session called "Teens in Transplant." Many of the young patients in this group received life-saving transplants as infants or toddlers and have grown up knowing the unique challenges of being a transplant patient.
Eighteen year old Jenna Mihalevich received a small bowel transplant as a baby. The transplant reunions have become an anticipated part of summer for many years.
"It was a wonderful event," she said. "I hadn't been to one for two or three years. There's no one here really around this area that has had a transplant like mine, so it's great to get together with people who understand what it's like and to meet new friends."
The Teens in Transplant portion of the reunion is important socially, but there are also important medical reasons to keep adolescent patients involved with their own health care.
"Teenagers have incredibly busy school and social activities and peer influence is also huge," said Wendy Grant, MD, transplant surgeon at The Nebraska Medical Center. "Plus, it is a time for experimentations with drugs and alcohol which may damage a transplanted organ. Non-compliance with a medical plan can lead to chronic organ rejection, loss of organ function, the need for re-transplantation and even death."
Experts say educational and support programs such as the transplant reunion are important and effective ways to keep teens engaged and informed in their own care.
Plans are already moving forward for the 2012 transplant reunion.