April 20, 2001

One year later, triple organ transplant recipient making ‘remarkable improvement’

Featured Image

Darrell Hedgecoth became Vanderbilt’s first triple organ transplant recipient on Jan. 23, 2000, after six months on the transplant waiting list. (photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

One year later, triple organ transplant
recipient making ‘remarkable improvement’

Normal life.  Hedgecoth shares a Coke with friends at a local restaurant. (photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

Normal life. Hedgecoth shares a Coke with friends at a local restaurant. (photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

Maybe it was his innocence. Perhaps he was wise beyond his years. More than likely it was his confidence in his doctors and medical advancements.

But when Darrell Hedgecoth was told he may one day need a lung transplant, he said he did not worry.

“To be honest, it just seemed so far off,” Hedgecoth, 19, recalled. “I was so young. I figured by the time I needed a transplant they’d find a cure.

“When you look at the new developments used to treat different illnesses, including CF (cystic fibrosis), I just was not worried.”

Although doctors have not found a cure for cystic fibrosis, survival rates have steadily increased over the past 20 years due to improved treatment options and surgical advancements.

Hedgecoth battled CF for 10 years. After six months on the transplant waiting list, he became Vanderbilt’s first triple organ transplant recipient on Jan. 23, 2000. The rare procedure has only been performed about a dozen times worldwide.

Cystic fibrosis is a fatal and inherited disease that is caused by a mutation of the gene, which codes for a chloride channel on the surface of the mucosal and exocrine gland cells. What that means is that patients with two copies of the abnormal gene have thick tenacious secretions that block and destroy glands and cause chronic disease of the lung, liver, pancreas and other organs. Patients are born with the disease, but the onset and severity of the manifestations is quite variable.

About 30,000 people in the United States have CF and many patients eventually require a lung transplant. In Hedgecoth’s case, the disease also affected his heart and liver, requiring a triple organ transplant.

Since the transplant, Hedgecoth and his doctors have seen remarkable improvements.

“Before the transplant I was on oxygen,” Hedgecoth recalled. “It took everything I had just to get to the mailbox. I was getting weaker and weaker by the day. Now, everything has changed.”

Doctors agree that Hedgecoth’s progress is going well.

“His health is very good even though he has suffered rejection of his liver,” said Dr. E. Wesley Ely, assistant professor of Medicine and transplant pulmonologist at Vanderbilt.

“Transplantation is often considered for cystic fibrosis patients near the end of life, and offers those who are able to get organs a good chance of not only improving their quality of life, but also living longer,” he said. “The rate of finding a cure is not moving quickly enough to abolish the need for transplants.”

Typical survival rates for lung transplant is 70 to 80 percent for one year and 50 percent for five years. The statistics for triple organ transplants are not available with so few procedures performed.

But that does not seem to bother Hedgecoth.

“I have not once looked back,” he said. “I am always looking ahead. They talk about survival rates, but I really don’t focus on that. I am here today. I do not look at my life as numbers and stats because anything can happen.

“After the transplant I could tell as soon as I woke up that I was breathing better. I felt better and was not struggling to breathe. That’s what I’m thinking about.

“I can walk to the fridge and not be out of breath. I am not sleeping all day. I have energy. I have an appetite. I can drive. I get out and see my friends. I graduated from high school and was the commencement speaker. I voted for the first time. I am looking forward to going to college in the fall. “

As Hedgecoth rattled off his accomplishments and desires, his father Ronald takes it all in too.

He too has struggled along with his son, watching as his health deteriorated. Wondering, hoping, praying that something could be done to help him.

“I’m glad we are able to spend another Christmas together,” the elder Hedgecoth said. “Without the transplant, we would’ve buried him. This is a real blessing, but it’s a loss for another family. For that I am truly sad. We are grateful that Darrell has a chance at life now. He can look forward to a future.

“I remember the doctors telling us that most patients don’t make it through the waiting period. Technology has really come a long way – they told us when he was born that he might make it to his teens. Things have changed.”

Ronald Hedgecoth said he will never forget the minutes before his son was wheeled back to surgery. “The doctors were telling us that there was a chance he would not make it off the table. I just didn’t know if it would be the last time I’d see him alive. So much runs through your mind. One thing was for sure – he was in the best hands.”

The 11-hour operation involved nearly 100 people in a team effort to save the Ashland City teen.

“When I saw him right after surgery, I felt like a weight had been lifted,” Ronald said. “For 18 years I stayed awake listening to him. I’d check on him many times during the night.

“Today, I sleep much better, but I’ll still poke my head in. It’s just habit.”