Transplant recipients never needed a COVID-19 pandemic to be anxious about infections.
Long before the pandemic, living with a transplanted organ had its own caution, stress, and anxiety about illness.
Throw social isolation into the mix and your anxiety is only made worse.
Isabel Stenzel Byrnes has lived 16 years with a double-lung transplant. Byrnes is a licensed social worker and grief counselor from California who says she started to feel the effects of social isolation about two months into the pandemic.
“I was starting to really find myself in a slump, and missing the energy shared with human beings,” said Byrnes, who copes by taking socially distanced walks with people.
One positive aspect of life during COVID-19 is that today we have computers, tablets, and Smartphones, which can be useful resources to visually and auditorily connect transplant recipients with their doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, social workers, colleagues, and friends.
Merle Zuel, RN, who has lived 13 years with a transplanted heart, says he now telecommutes which has done wonders for his anxiety levels.
“With work, fortunately, I’ve been allowed to work from home,” said Zuel, who works for the VA hospital in Kansas City. “Being in a hospital with active COVID-19 cases was not something I was really thrilled about, and I was fortunate that they recognized that there was a need for moving people out to telework. That’s helped to limit my exposure and reduce my anxiety.”
Zuel says that his coping mechanism during isolation has been to find creative outlets.
“One of my creative outlets is cooking,” says Zuel. “I’ve become kind of a pizza expert on my own, making homemade pizzas for me and my wife. I also like to take drives in my truck and listen to music and sing along. It’s a good release.”
Shawn Sousa is another heart-transplant recipient who works from home designing networks and security systems. Sousa lives in California and is one year removed from his heart transplant. He says that the constant isolation of the past year has taken a mental toll on him.
“The hardest part … has been not being able to be around my family as much as I would like,” said Sousa, who—for peace of mind and to stay on top of his transplant health—does telemedicine visits with his kidney doctors and uses RemoTraC™ for his labs.
“[RemoTraC] has been awesome, because I can skip having to go into a lab where [COVID-19] exposure would be at its maximum,” said Sousa
Ann Marie Warren, PhD, ABPP, is a licensed psychologist and co-director of the Trauma Research at the Level I Trauma Center at Baylor University Medical Center, part of Baylor Scott & White Health. Dr. Warren says that lessons learned from previous viral outbreaks, such as SARS, may help with emotional coping during COVID-19.
“Social support is critical for being a buffering effect against anxiety,” says Dr. Warren, “as well as finding enjoyable activities like Merle Zuel’s pizza making and going for a drive—whatever it is that you find enjoyable.”
Dr. Warren is also quick to point out that to minimize anxiety, people should be careful about the degree of media exposure that they take in.
“The research consistently shows that too much exposure results in increased anxiety,” says Dr. Warren. “Specifically, when they looked at this with SARS, they found that social media had more of an impact on anxiety than traditional media.”
Sandra Carey, PhD, ANP-BC, an outpatient nurse practitioner for transplant and advanced heart failure at Baylor, Scott & White in Dallas, Texas, praises telemedicine and how it has helped isolated transplanted recipients during COVID-19. She also says that exercise like Isabel Stenzel Byrnes’ socially distanced walks with friends are an essential coping tool.
“I would encourage [transplant recipients] who are fearful to go outside and get some fresh air every day,” says Dr. Carey. “Make it a part of your routine. Exercise is such a stress reducer … Go outside … find a location that is open and less populated. It’ll be such a mental boost.”
Dr.’s Warren and Carey’s perspectives—as well as the perspectives of Zuel, Byrnes, and Sousa—were shared in a CareDx webinar entitled “Managing Anxiety as a Transplant Patient in a COVID-19 World.”
To watch the webinar click here.
If you are curious about behavioral telehealth, talk to you doctor about how to do it. Usually, it requires nothing more than an internet connection and a video-conferencing solution.
If you or someone you care about feels overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety, or like you think about harming yourself or others, call 911
SAMHSA’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255.
Always seek the advice of your physician or medical team with any questions you may have regarding your specific medical condition. The information is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice from your healthcare provider.