Fifteen years ago, Miss Lee received a new heart in a Taipei hospital. Yesterday, she had a reunion with three other heart transplant survivors who received new hearts in the same year, telling reporters that she has since gone on mountain hikes and occasionally traveled abroad.
"Having had a heart transplant at the age of 23, I've got used to not caring about a lot of things, never worrying how much longer I could live and just trying to live each precious day to the full," she said, adding that she has absolutely no taboos and has been hiking and traveling quite often.
As the longest-living recipient of a transplanted heart in Asia, Lee recalled that before the transplant her family had been advised to prepare for her funeral.
Lee had her operation at Cheng Hsin Rehabilitation Medical Center in Taipei on Feb. 4, 1991, and in March, November and December that year, Mr. Shih, Mr. Chu and Ms. Liu, now 60, 50 and 35 respectively, also had successful operations.
At a press conference yesterday, all four heart recipients said that they have learnt to appreciate life and to live each day to the fullest. Except for the immunosuppressants that they have to take daily, they do not feel any different from ordinary people.
"If I don't show my major operation card, no one will suspect that I am a heart transplant patient," Chu said.
The first heart transplant operation in Taiwan was carried out in 1978. Since then, more than 550 such operations have been performed in the country. Between 1988 and last year, the Cheng Hsin team performed 257 heart transplants, 46 percent of the total number performed in Taiwan. Of 257 recipients, about 50 percent have survived 15 years; 59 percent have survived 10 years and 75 percent five years.
Doctors at Cheng Hsin said quite a number of the patients are businesspeople who, since recuperating, have been traveling across the Taiwan Strait as frequently as once a month.
Wei Cheng (魏崢), director of Cheng Hsin's Heart Medical Center, said heart transplants in Asia will only become more successful, as hospitals share their technical expertise. For instance, he noted, doctors can share experiences in critical care and adjustment of drug dosage.
Post-operative care is very important, he said. Patients need to have their blood tested each month to adjust immunosuppressant dosage as this is an effective means of extending their lifespan.
He said heart recipients have to take immunosuppressants, mainly FK506 and Neoral, for the rest of their lives. The main side effects are infections and malignant tumors caused by over suppression of the immune system. These side effects are the major causes of death of heart transplant patients over the long term, Wei said.
The immunosuppressants are themselves toxic to kidneys, the liver and bone marrow and may cause diabetes, gout, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, he said.