Troubling dimensions of heart transplantation

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Abstract

Heart transplantation is now the accepted therapy for end-stage heart failure that is resistant to medical treatment. Families of deceased donors routinely are urged to view the heart as a “gift of life” that will enable the donor to live on by extending and sustaining the life of a stranger. In contrast, heart recipients are encouraged to view the organ mechanistically—as a new pump that was rendered a spare, reusable part when a generous stranger died. Psychosocial and psychoanalytic research, anecdotal evidence and first-person accounts indicate that after transplant, many recipients experience unexpected changes or distress that cannot be understood adequately using biomedical explanatory models alone. In this paper it is argued that phenomenological philosophy offers a promising way to frame an ongoing empirical study that asks recipients to reflect on what it is like to incorporate the heart of another person. Merleau-Ponty and others have posited that any change to the body inevitably transforms the self. Hence, it is argued in this paper that replacing failing hearts with functioning hearts from deceased persons must be considered much more than a complex technical procedure. Acknowledging the disturbances to embodiment and personal identity associated with transplantation may explain adverse outcomes that heretofore have been inexplicable. Ultimately, a phenomenological understanding could lead to improvements in the consent process, preoperative teaching and follow-up care.

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