Vaccines to Protect That Precious Gift

Anyone who has so much as glanced at my blog posts knows that I support getting COVID vaccines. Period. Obviously for transplant recipients and others with a weakened immune system like my son, who has no COVID antibodies even after a third shot; obviously for everyone around them (including living donors, of course)—family, friends, neighbors, and people they have yet to meet. Like I said: period (with very very rare medical exceptions).

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

I would have thought it was a no-brainer that anyone about to either give or receive a precious kidney would be all the more eager to have every protection possible. Like everything else, though, apparently there are exceptions.

Maybe you’ve read that a few U.S. transplant centers have instituted rules requiring COVID vaccines for both parties before a transplant can proceed. Considering that other important health screenings and protections are required, that sounded reasonable to me. However, the Washington Post published an article recently about situations in which an about-to-be living donor—ready to undergo surgery, entailing drugs during and after— had balked at the idea of receiving a COVID vaccine that has proven to be safe and effective at preventing COVID-related severe illness and hospitalization.

To be clear, not only is an organ recipient more vulnerable to catching COVID because of needing to take antirejection meds, but if they do catch it, they have a higher risk of developing severe, even fatal, complications. So, understandably, doctors don’t want to increase a transplant patient’s risks.

The transplant described in the article had to be cancelled days before it was scheduled, and the poor patient who’d been counting the days until he received his new kidney had to restart the search for a living donor (and fortunately found one).

But the article also similarly described potential recipients who’d refused the shot, which I found even more baffling. Why would someone who’s been on dialysis for years and gets a chance at a longer and better-quality life refuse a transplant because of the vaccine requirement? (Read the article if you want to know her reasons.)

I just don’t get it.

A Third Shot Wasn’t the Charm

In August, I excitedly wrote about my (kidney recipient) adult son getting his booster shot, with important reminders for organ recipients. It was great news to get that third shot at protection because, like so many other people with suppressed immune systems, his body had not made any antibodies from the first two shots. His immune system, tamped down to coexist with his gifted kidney, didn’t react to the vaccine the way it does for people with strong immune systems.

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So naturally he was realistic but still hopeful that the third one might do the trick. “Fingers crossed,” I wrote. He was told to wait a month or so before getting the spike protein antibody test to check, which he did recently.

Alas, though we were not surprised, our family was really disappointed to learn that his immune system hadn’t responded to the third one either. Fortunately, the body still has other ways, like memory T cells, to protect it from infections like COVID, but we have no way to know how much protection they’re providing.

So, until this is all over–and I know I’ve said this many times before–my son’s best hope of avoiding COVID and staying healthy is for everyone to get vaccinated and wear masks as needed! It’s not only for the protection of my son and other organ recipients, but for the millions of people with weakened immune systems from HIV, cancer, auto-immune diseases, and certain treatments.

Don’t we all want this to be over as soon as possible? Doing our best to protect one another is really the only way.

Stevie Wonder: Are You Vaccinated?

I’m asking not just as a concerned long-time fan but mostly because he’s in the over-65 age group and, even more important, a kidney transplant recipient. The latter is a particularly vulnerable group because of having a tamped-down immune system designed to avoid attacking his transplanted kidney. If a kidney recipient like Stevie Wonder, or my son (to whom I donated 14 years ago), contracts the coronavirus, he is at far greater risk of having a severe case.

There are still some skeptics out there who fear taking the vaccine because kidney recipients—immuno-suppressed individuals in general—were not included in the vaccine clinical trials. I’ll admit I was a bit wary in the very beginning, too. But this is not a live vaccine, it’s safe, and it’s similar to earlier groups of vaccines about which scientists have a lot of experience. Also, and frankly, this is the bottom line: we do know about the risks of COVID and they’re very real. It’s no contest. Health authorities recommend that transplant recipients be vaccinated.

Alas, like everything else about this pandemic, access to the vaccines is not uniform. It varies by state, by demographic groups, and by circumstances. Millions of vulnerable people have not yet received theirs. In my state, North Carolina, healthcare providers of people with kidney failure and advocates have urged the governor to move up this group in the priority order. As people in the currently eligible population still struggle to snare an appointment for theirs, it hasn’t happened yet.

Being in that eligible population, I feel very fortunate to be fully vaccinated—and now fully protected. Why am I still wearing a mask in the photo then? For the same reason I’ve been doing it since last spring: because we don’t know yet if vaccinated people can infect others–and I care about the people around me.

According to the Washington Post, “An estimated 81 million adults have conditions that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies as posing an increased risk for severe covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.”

 So, sure, it’s extremely comforting to know that I’m fully protected, but that’s not true for my immuno-suppressed son, my immuno-suppressed friends, my friends with health conditions in other states, my younger daughter, my neighbors—in fact, most of my community—so you bet I still wear a mask and keep my distance. It’s worth it.

(Stevie: If you have had the COVID shots, please show your card, too, and continue to tell your story. Let other transplant recipients and any skeptics know!)