A PowerPlayer is anyone who supports the life-saving cause of organ donation and transplantation, from the patients who receive transplants, to the donors and their families who make those transplants possible, to the medical professionals who arrange and perform the life-saving miracle of transplantation. They serve to remind us that we all have the Power2Save lives.
This week we spoke with Dr. Maryl Johnson, a heart transplant cardiologist and Past President of the American Society of Transplantation.
Dr. Johnson, could you tell me about your current work and some recent accomplishments?
I’m a heart failure transplant cardiologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I’ve been a heart transplant cardiologist since the mid 1980s, and it has really been my whole career. I’ve been involved in not only the clinical care of transplant candidates and transplant recipients, but national and international organizations related to transplantation and organ donation, including the American Society of Transplantation.
What made you decide to pursue transplantation as a specialty?
Early in my career I took care of a patient who was very young–I think he was 19 at the time. After doing a test of his heart I had to tell his family that there was nothing that we could do surgically to make his heart better, that we would do the best we could with medicines, but I was uncertain they would be effective. I told them that I had heard of this thing called “heart transplantation” done at Stanford, and thought it was something we should look into for him. We were able to have him go to Stanford and be transplanted. When the University of Iowa [where I was working at the time] decided to start a transplant program, they said ‘Maryl, you’ve taken care of a transplant patient, you should really be involved.’ It’s really been a wonderful career opportunity and a career for me since then.
What do you find rewarding about work as a cardiac transplantation doctor?
We have an ongoing relationship with patients, even though we don’t provide their primary care. I still have contact with the family that got me into the field, and I hear from several other past patients a few times a year. I get to be involved in something that really is life changing for these patients. Transplants allow them to resume their productive lifestyles. The younger ones grow up and have families, the older ones get to see their grandchildren grow up. It’s just a very rewarding long-term physician-patient relationship that has evolved over time.
What research are you or your peers working on right now that could make a significant impact within the next 5-10 years for those who might be awaiting a transplant?
Transplant is a field where the gains are truly incremental. I think we’ve been having improvements in the outcomes early after transplantation. Long-term outcomes are still compromised and a lot of that is due to complications with immunosuppression.
Right now, the study we’re involved with at the University of Wisconsin is looking at a specific drug that affects a different part of the immune system than current immunosuppressive drugs. The hope is that this will decrease a type of rejection that is thought to be caused by antibodies, rather than cells, which is something we don’t control as well. Also, to decrease the incidence of a coronary artery disease that develops in the transplanted heart that’s related to the immune system.
Have you had any particular patients who in your mind embody why you’re so passionate about the field of transplantation?
People who are involved in transplantation are passionate about it. It’s truly something we believe in. I could tell you stories about many different patients, but it’s really the patients whose lives are changed so much by transplantation that make me feel good about the work our team does. And it really is a team, including cardiologists, surgeons, coordinators, social workers and laboratory personnel. If someone doesn’t do well, we at least give them a chance to do better. By the time someone is actually considered a transplant candidate, it’s considered the only option for a significantly better quality of life.
Why do you think others should support the Power2Save initiative and its goal of funding important transplantation research and raising public awareness of organ donation and transplantation?
First, to support the need for organ donors for the nearly 100,000 patients on the waiting list for transplants in the United States. Second, to raise money for research and try to improve the outcomes from transplantation. Even though transplants are wonderful and give people a new lease on life, the life span of a transplant recipient is usually less than that of a normal person of the same age. So if we can improve the outcomes of transplantation through research, then we can even decrease the need for retransplantation.