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Organ transplant patients may remain vulnerable even after COVID-19 vaccine

Posted at 7:55 AM, May 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-21 10:55:11-04

As a kidney transplant patient going on 12 years healthy, it was a huge relief and peace of mind when I became fully vaccinated. So I was shocked when Dr. Dorry Segev, Transplant Surgeon at Johns Hopkins University, told me this...

"We've been measuring antibody response to the vaccine. Antibodies are one of the things you can measure when somebody gets vaccinated, and we are finding that only about half of transplant patients mount any antibodies in response to the vaccine. And the other half in general, have lower levels of antibodies than people with normal immune systems," Dr. Segev said.

All I could say to that was, "Wow!"

Right away I thought about the effort it took, waiting for hours at State Farm Stadium just to get the shot...twice! And now I'm learning, it's less effective for transplant recipients? I asked Dr. Segev why, and if the findings were limited to kidney recipients?

"It's not necessarily the type of organ someone has gotten," Dr. Segev said. "But most certainly, different transplant medications seem to be impacting people differentially," he said.

I'm currently on several anti-rejection medications, designed specifically to lower the immune system to keep my body's natural defenses from attacking and rejecting my transplanted kidney. So what now?

"Transplant patients should absolutely still get the COVID vaccine," said Dr. Macey Levan, Assistant Professor in Transplant Surgery at Johns Hopkins.

Dr Levan works with Dr Segev. She also happens to be my cousin -- and my kidney donor.

Dr. Levan is personally invested in both my health and the health of the community as a whole.

"So our research group is 100% committed to not just how we do transplants, but taking care of patients like you for the rest of their life after they receive them," Dr. Levan said.

For me, she recommends I continue to mask up and social distance until they find a better solution.

"There are some patients who, somehow, after careful discussions with their medical teams are getting third doses of the vaccine," said Dr. Segev. "We are studying those who are doing this, and we are starting to see some optimism that perhaps that could be a road to success for some transplant patients," he said

"If there's a third dose that actually improves the outcomes for transplant recipients, that would be a major finding," Levan added.

But until then, I stick to protocol, not just for me, but for her, and all the donors that that literally gave part of themselves for transplant recipients like me to have life.

And I made sure to tell her during our interview, "It was such a lifesaving act and gift that you provided and I will forever be you cousin."

"I appreciate that and love you too," she replied. "It was my absolute honor, and it continues to be very cool that it's something you and I can help others with, so I appreciate the advocacy in you as well," she said.

I have agreed to participate in the Johns Hopkins study and get an antibody test to see if I've built any immunity to the virus. I will be sure to update this story when we get the results and if I end up getting a third dose.