Back in December 2012, Jennifer Wederell of Great Britain died approximately 16 months after receiving a lung transplant. As most understand, medicine is not a perfect science, and the absurd number of medical dramas on TV has taught us all that organ transplants are not guaranteed to work if the body rejects the organs. But Jennifer didn’t die because her body rejected her transplant lungs. She died from lung cancer—a direct result of the “heavy smoking” of the lungs’ previous owner. Oh yeah, and Jennifer reportedly didn’t know about it.
Shockingly, the use of smokers’ lungs in transplants isn’t new. Highly specific studies have even suggested that giving a patient the lungs of a smoker can often lead to the exact same positive results achieved with a non-smoker’s lungs. In a study conducted at Temple University Hospital, research has begun to suggest that “not only was survival similar between nonsmokers’ lungs transplants and smokers’ lungs transplants, but lung function and death from malignancy post-transplant was also not different between the two.”
An extremely important caveat exists, however, in the fact that there is no black and white decision on whether a pair of smokers’ lungs are acceptable. Smoking affects everyone differently. We all have an elder relative in our families who has smoked like a chimney for decades, yet who has thankfully never contracted any serious disease of the lungs. And yet, “Lung cancer (both small cell and non-small cell) is by far the leading cause of cancer death for both men and women.” Yes, lung cancer tragically strikes even those who have never taken a puff, but smoking still accounts for approximately 90% of all lung cancer. I’m sure that none of this is news to you.
The use of smokers’ lungs in organ transplants raises an important question: In a world of rapidly advancing medical technology, just how far should doctors go? Even if someone such aas Jennifer has been plagued by a lung disease for her entire life, is it right to give her the lungs of a smoker? Were doctors trying to force a miracle in not fully informing the patient that her lungs were from a smoker—just hoping that no complications would arise?
Yes, medicine today has a wonderful ability to give people chances that they would never have gotten even ten years ago. But would a doctor ever instruct a patient to begin smoking? Doubtful. A study by the Harvard School of Public Health estimates that it takes twenty years after a woman stops smoking for her chances of all smoking-related deaths to be equal to that of a nonsmoker. So why, then, would anyone possibly think it is acceptable to give someone to transplant the lungs of a smoker-especially to a woman already affected by tragic lung disease? By definition, cancer results from abnormal cell division that cannot be controlled.
Yes, there may be a drastic shortage of organs, but does it mean that any organ is suddenly a safe organ?