In June 2017, 10 lung-transplant patients from several countries, accompanied by their doctors and attendants from MedUni Vienna and Vienna General Hospital, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 m). Their intention was to show the level of fitness and quality-of-life they had regained as a result of their transplants. During the course of the expedition, the patients were medically supervised and examined and the collected data are being scientifically analysed. At a press conference held at MedUni Vienna, participating patients and their doctors talked about their experiences.
The expedition, which reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in East Africa on June 2017, consisted of ten lung-transplant patients aged between 23 and 63 years plus 24 attendants (doctors, physiotherapists and nurses). The patients had all undergone a lung transplant operation at the Department of Surgery of MedUni Vienna and Vienna General Hospital over the last 15 years, and one patient had even had a combined lung/liver transplant.
The patients were examined every day to make sure they were properly cared for and their health safeguarded. In addition to their vital signs, blood gases, kidney values and electrolyte levels were measured and their altitude sickness score determined. As a precautionary measure, the participants were given hepatitis A immunoglobulin before setting off and during the expedition they only drank bottled water (ten porters carried around 500 l), in order to prevent picking up any infections.
The attendants from MedUni Vienna carried out numerous scientific tests to measure the effects of physical exertion. For example, the patients' immunosuppression levels were checked, sleep screening carried out and saturation, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen, carbon dioxide and lactate values measured. Their muscular strength was also tested and their pleura and optic nerves examined by ultrasound.
At 4,000 meters, two of the patients had reached their limits and had to go back down the mountain. The remaining eight patients and their 24 attendants reached the summit on Sunday, 18 June 2017. None of them had to contend with any serious health problems, even though more than half of them exhibited slight to moderate symptoms of altitude sickness (nausea, headache, insomnia).
Pulmonologist Peter Jaksch from the Department of Surgery of MedUni Vienna/Vienna General Hospital has looked after lung-transplant patients at Vienna General Hospital for 16 years and it was his idea to organise a joint expedition up the highest mountain in Africa: "After their major surgery and their previous illness, it was particularly gratifying and self-affirming for our patients to stand, fit and healthy, on the highest summit in Africa. The expedition is testament to the fact that, even after serious illness and major surgery in the form of a lung transplant, it is possible to live an active life again."
"The quality of life and level of fitness that can be achieved after a lung transplant operation is incredibly good," explains Walter Klepetko, Head of the Division of Thoracic Surgery at MedUni Vienna/Vienna General Hospital. "If you compare this with the results that can be achieved in many other branches of medicine, then the cost on such a procedure is definitely justified."
It is planned to produce several scientific publications based on the results of the investigations and on the overall concept of the expedition.
Vienna is one of the top lung-transplantation centres in the world
The first lung transplant was performed at the Medical Faculty of the University of Vienna in November 1989. Twenty-five years later, the Medical University of Vienna or Vienna General Hospital is regarded as one of the top four centres for lung transplantation, alongside Hanover, Toronto and Cleveland. Between 100 and 120 patients a year "get their second wind" in Vienna. A total of 1,800 transplant operations have been performed since 1989.
So far, all the donor lungs transplanted at the Department of Surgery of MedUni Vienna and Vienna General Hospital, have come from Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria, since these countries do not have a lung transplantation centre of their own. The surplus organs that this has produced have provided first-class care for the people of Austria.
"Due to the large number of transplants performed at MedUni Vienna, we are able to conduct large-scale studies and to develop and apply new surgical techniques," explained Klepetko, “and, in turn, this reinforces the leading position that our centre in Vienna enjoys worldwide."
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