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Heart transplants: Identity disruption, bodily integrity and interconnectedness

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journal contribution
posted on 24.11.2022, 14:37 authored by Oliver E. Mauthner, Enza De Luca, Jennifer PooleJennifer Poole, Susan E. Abbey, Margrit Shildrick, Mena Gewarges, Heather J. Ross

Of heart transplant recipients, 30 per cent report ongoing or episodic emotional issues post-transplant, which are not attributable to medications or pathophysiological changes. To this end, our team theorized that cardiac transplantation introduces pressing new questions about how patients incorporate a transplanted heart into their sense of self and how this impacts their identity. The work of Merleau-Ponty provided the theoretical underpinning for this project as it rationalizes how corporeal changes affect one’s self and offer an innovative framework to access these complex aspects of living with a transplanted heart. We used visual methodology and recorded 25 semi-structured interviews videographically. Both visual and verbal data were analyzed at the same time in an iterative process. The most common theme was that participants expressed a disruption to their own identity and bodily integrity. Additionally, participants reported interconnectedness with the donor, even when the transplanted heart was perceived as an intruder or stranger. Finally, transplant recipients were very vivid in their descriptions and speculation of how they imagined the donor. Receiving an anonymous donor organ from a stranger often leaves the recipient with questions about who they themselves are now. Our study provides a nuanced understanding of heart transplant recipients’ embodied experiences of self and identity. Insights gained are valuable to educate transplant professionals to develop new supportive interventions both pre- and post-transplant, and to improve the process of informed consent. Ultimately, such insights could be used to enable heart transplant recipients to incorporate the graft optimally over time, easing distress and improving recovery.