Just weeks after Allison John was born in the United Kingdom, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, an incurable genetic condition that results in the formation of thick mucus. This mucus plugs up the tubes leading to the lungs, liver, and other organs. Cystic fibrosis often results in permanent and life threatening lung and liver damage as the thick mucus causes inflammation and tissue destroying infection in the organs. The liver failure associated with cystic fibrosis can also put a tremendous amount of extra stress on the heart.
When Allison was just 15-years-old, she received her first organ transplant, a liver. Just over a year later, doctors informed her that she would also need a lung transplant. Doctors decided to do a combination (heart and lung) transplant to increase the change of survival. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, a combined heart-lung transplant only has a 40% survival rate for the first five years.
Of course, the above organ transplants come with a lifetime cocktail of immunosuppressive drugs to suppress the immune system so that the body will be less likely to reject the foreign organs. Ironically, this is what led to Allison’s fourth organ donation in 2006. The immunosuppressive drugs prevented her body from rejecting her new heart, liver, and lungs, but it also slowly damaged her kidneys in the process. This aspect actually isn’t uncommon…about 50% of heart transplant patients and 30% of liver transplant patients develop kidney failure. Sadly, she will most likely need another kidney transplant 10-20 years down the road, as the continued immunosuppressive therapy will most likely damage the transplanted kidney as well.
With her fourth organ transplant, 32-year-old Allison John made medical history in the United Kingdom. She is the first woman in the United Kingdom to have all her major organs transplanted.
Amazingly, Allison has managed to receive a medical degree despite all of her own medical issues. It took 14 years of study, but Allison finally graduated from Cardiff University in July, 2010. Allison has started her career as a junior doctor at Neville Hall Hospital in Abergavenny, England.
Although cystic fibrosis is technically a rare disease, it is still one of the most common life-shortening genetic diseases. In the 1950’s, the median age of survival for children with cystic fibrosis was just six months. Those with cystic fibrosis today can survive well into their 30’s, 40’s, and even 50’s. Data from the United States in 2004 showed that 91% of those with cystic fibrosis graduated high school, 54% attended college, and only 12.6% considered themselves disabled.
Allison Johns’ story of survival and obtainment of educational dreams is a testament to the beauty of the human will to survive and thrive and the medical advancements doctors and scientists have blessed us with.