A liver transplant 10 years ago hasn’t stopped Sue Welchman from working, travelling, making new friends, and reflecting on what her illness has taught her.

It’s funny how life’s experiences sneak up on you. Come June 2023 I will have had my transplanted liver for 10 years. 

I had my transplant because of cancer, and here I am a decade later. What a wonderful gift! I’m grateful every day, and yet extremely sad that my life grew out of someone else’s death.

A lot has happened since the day of my transplant at Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in 2013: I’ve made new friends and lost old ones; one to cancer, many to emigration. I’ve watched my little girl turn into a teenager on the brink of adult life, and I’ve welcomed new nieces and a nephew. I have travelled to all sorts of places – from Eswatini to Greece and from the United States to Botswana. I did COVID-19 lockdown with everyone else in South Africa and the world, and I’ve gone to work almost every working day since I went back to the office after my transplant.

That’s a lot of living.

Balancing act

Now that I’ve come this far, I can see the monitoring that I’m under has switched from, “Will her body reject the liver?” to, “What’s going to happen, health-wise, now?” Of course, no one knows the answer to that question, and there is only one way to live life – one day at a time.

It’s a balancing act, that living one day at a time! You cannot mindlessly live in the moment, you need to take care to live in ways that will preserve your life and keep you going. We all have to, in fact.

Transplant recipient or not, we all must eat our veggies, do our exercise, and all the other things aimed at keeping us healthy and alive. And still, there’s no guarantee you will see tomorrow. Being a transplant recipient who has come this far means I’m perhaps more aware of this than most people. I consider that a gift. It does get tiring sometimes, though.

The constant vigilance, and the wondering, from time to time, when the other shoe will drop and Something Big and Bad will happen. Like cancer.

You can’t control everything

“Cancer is a tremendous opportunity to have your face pressed right up against the glass of your mortality. But what patients see through the glass is not a world outside cancer, but a world taken over by it – cancer reflected endlessly around them like a hall of mirrors,” wrote Indian-American physician Dr Siddhartha Mukerjee in his wonderful book about cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies.

It’s true. And again, that is why we must live this life one day at a time. We’re not in control – something I have to keep reminding myself, because I am in love with the illusion of being in control.

Whenever I meet people who have been diagnosed with cancer or some other dread disease, or who are waiting for a transplant – the worst part is the waiting, but after that it gets better – I tell them to find the things they can control: what you eat, the chemicals you use in your house, the books you read and the TV you watch. Control those things, because this will anchor you, and give you back a feeling of personal power – and that is the feeling so quickly ripped away when you’ve just been diagnosed or told you need a transplant.

And for the rest? Well, there’s that old adage: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

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