Benefits aimed at kidney and liver transplant patients
A pilot program by Alberta Health Services in Calgary is helping ease some of the psychological burdens of patients awaiting kidney and liver transplants.
Believed to be the first of its kind in North America, the Coping Skills Development Group aims to reduce the depression and anxiety that often affect people on organ transplant waiting lists.
“Teaching coping skills and helping people manage better is really a critical element of medical care,” said AHS psychiatrist Dr. Lauren Zanussi who works with patients facing chronic illnesses.
“If we can help patients improve their mental outlook, it tends to positively impact their physical condition as well.”
Previous studies show that patients who mentally cope better with their illness tend to take better care of themselves, pay closer attention to medical instructions and have improved recoveries following an organ transplant.
Zanussi says early intervention designed to improve coping skills can also prevent problems from becoming more serious.
To date, 22 organ transplant patients have participated in three separate Coping Skills Development pilot groups. Preliminary findings have been positive, with standard depression and anxiety scales showing dramatic reductions following participation.
For example, on entering the program, 25 per cent of participants surveyed say their depression was ‘very severe’ and 37 per cent say it was ‘severe.’ After completing the program, none of the participants reported either ‘very severe’ or ‘severe’ depression; the highest level experienced was ‘moderate.’
The program’s creators, Health Services social workers Dee Miner and Tasneem Remtulla who based it on Zanussi’s idea, say that patients awaiting transplants often feel powerless.
“Their worlds have been turned upside down,” said Miner. “Imagine living with the uncertainty of whether you’ll be matched for a donor organ and wondering what life will be like after.”
Organ transplant patients have to cope with “a new normal,” says Remtulla.
“They struggle with a basic question of who they are now, both before and after surgery. They may struggle to do things they used to do and the focus has to shift from ‘what I can’t do’ to ‘what I can do,’” she said.
The program, which consists of eight two-hour group sessions, equips patients with skills to deal with depression and anxiety. Topics covered include meditation and mindfulness techniques, problem-solving, assertiveness, spirituality, managing self care, and maintaining healthy relationships in the context of illness. Each week participants are given homework related to a particular topic.
Bonnie Corradetti, who has been waiting seven years for a kidney transplant, says one of the most beneficial aspects of being in the coping skills group was simply sharing her experience with other people who could empathize.
“I realized I was keeping a lot inside and that it was OK to really focus on what I was experiencing,” said Corradetti who is a retired nurse. “One of the things they taught in the class was living each day as best you can, which is what I try to do.”
Corradetti keeps her activity level high by playing golf, attending yoga class and travelling.
“I decided I wasn’t going to just sit at home and wait,” she said.
Currently, 340 people in southern Alberta are on the wait list for a kidney transplant and more than 540 provincewide. There are also 130 individuals from Alberta and parts of B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba on the Alberta Transplant Program’s liver transplant wait list.
Miner and Remtulla presented early results of the pilot group last year to an international conference of social workers in Florida.
Pre-transplant kidney patients interested in joining the Coping Skills Development Group can call 403-944-2829 while pre-transplant liver patients can call 403-944-4762.
Tips for interested donors:
- Talk about donation with your loved ones. Get the facts. Make the decision that’s right for you. Discuss your decision with your family.
- Document your decision on the back of your Alberta Personal Health card.
- The final decision is requested from your family. Make your wishes known to make that process easier for your loved ones.