Do People Change After Heart Implants?
Heart transplantation is not simply a question of replacing an organ that no longer functions. The heart is often seen as source of love, emotions, and focus of personality traits. To gain insight into the problem of whether transplant patients themselves feel a change in personality after having received a donor heart, 47 patients who were transplanted over a period of 2 years in Vienna, Austria, were asked for an interview. Three groups of patients could be identified: 79% stated that their personality had not changed at all postoperatively. In this group, patients showed massive defense and denial reactions, mainly by rapidly changing the subject or making the question ridiculous. Fifteen per cent stated that their personality had indeed changed, but not because of the donor organ, but due to the life-threatening event. Six per cent (three patients) reported a distinct change of personality due to their new hearts. These incorporation fantasies forced them to change feelings and reactions and accept those of the donor. Verbatim statements of these heart transplant recipients show that there seem to be severe problems regarding graft incorporation, which are based on the age-old idea of the heart as a centre that houses feelings and forms the personality.
You might think that in this day and age, we would be past seeing the heart–an organ that pumps blood–as a center of a person’s personality. However, the authors of this study regularly dealt with real patients who worried that their personalities would change after a heart transplant. In fact, they report that some patients refuse hearts from the opposite sex, and others experience anxiety about their sense of self after having a heart transplant. To get a better handle on this phenomenon, the researchers surveyed heart transplant recipients to find out whether they thought their personalities changed after the surgery. The short answer? No. (Except for three people, who reported a distinct change in personality that they did not attribute to the life-changing experience of getting a new heart.) But our favorite response is from this patient: “’I love to put on earphones and play loud music, something I never did before. A different car, a good stereo-those are my dreams now. And I have thoughts now that I never had before.’ (remark: patient: 45 year old man, donor 17 year old boy).”
Does changing the heart mean changing personality? A retrospective inquiry on 47 heart transplant patients.
“Heart transplantation is not simply a question of replacing an organ that no longer functions. The heart is often seen as source of love, emotions, and focus of personality traits. To gain insight into the problem of whether transplant patients themselves feel a change in personality after having received a donor heart, 47 patients who were transplanted over a period of 2 years in Vienna, Austria, were asked for an interview. Three groups of patients could be identified: 79% stated that their personality had not changed at all postoperatively. In this group, patients showed massive defense and denial reactions, mainly by rapidly changing the subject or making the question ridiculous. Fifteen per cent stated that their personality had indeed changed, but not because of the donor organ, but due to the life-threatening event. Six per cent (three patients) reported a distinct change of personality due to their new hearts. These incorporation fantasies forced them to change feelings and reactions and accept those of the donor. Verbatim statements of these heart transplant recipients show that there seem to be severe problems regarding graft incorporation, which are based on the age-old idea of the heart as a centre that houses feelings and forms the personality.”
Organ Transplants: Can a New Heart Change Your Life—and Your Taste in Music?
Bill Wohl was a hard-driving self-described type A executive until cardiac disease nearly killed him in 2000. A heart transplant at the University of Arizona medical center saved his life—and transformed it in ways he could never have imagined. Weeks after his operation, Wohl, now 58, heard a song on the radio by the British vocalist Sade. "I just started crying and rocking," he recalls. Odd, since before the surgery, Wohl hadn't heard of Sade and was not the type to mist up over a torch song. Later he contacted the family of organ donor Michael Brady, the 36-year-old Hollywood stuntman whose heart he had received, and made an intriguing discovery. Sade was one of Brady's favorite singers. "It was," says Wohl, "really, really freaky."
And not entirely unheard of. Paul Oldam, a corporate executive in a Milwaukee law firm, received the heart of a 14-year-old boy who had been killed in a truck accident in 1993. On Oldam's first post-surgery shopping trip, his wife, Peggy, was taken aback when he wandered into the candy aisle and started loading the basket with Snickers bars. "He never liked candy before that," Peggy says other husband, now 70. Bill also became an avid outdoorsman, given to kayaking, cross-country skiing and cycling 25 miles at a stretch. "I wouldn't be surprised," says Peggy, 69, "if he wanted to try parachuting next year."
Experts say a renewed zest for life is common among transplant recipients, whose surgeries can deliver them almost miraculously from the brink of death to robust health. "They go from being an invalid to a fully functional human being. It's almost like becoming a new person," says Dr. Jack Copeland, the Tucson surgeon whose team performed transplants for Wohl and some 700 other patients. But Sade-loving softies? Most doctors attribute the sometimes seismic personality changes after a transplant to radical health improvements, heavy doses of anesthesia and antirejection medications and psychological factors. Still, their patients often insist they have received far more than just a lifesaving hunk of muscle.
Although he has scant scientific research to back it up, University of Arizona psychologist Gary Schwartz advocates a theory to explain the curious phenomenon. Dubbed cellular memory, the theory holds that, since every cell in the body contains a complete set of genetic material, transplant patients inherit DNA from their donors that determines, in part, how a person thinks, behaves and even eats. "Hearts can have memory, as brains do," says Schwartz. Most doctors, however, say that's the stuff of the Sci-Fi Channel and note that Schwartz based his theory on a study of just 10 transplant patients. "There is no evidence of clinical findings to suggest that [cellular memory exists]," says Dr. Tracy Stevens, medical director of the cardiac transplant program at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.
But try telling that to Jamie Sherman. A native of southern Arizona, an area peppered with Mexican restaurants, Sherman, who was born with a heart defect, didn't develop a taste for the cuisine until she received a transplant in November 2001. Soon after, she had a strong and regular craving for cheese enchiladas, bean burritos and soft tacos. Sherman, 28, also says she emerged from the operation with a deep sense of anger. "I couldn't understand where it was coming from," she says.
Six months after the surgery, Sherman, like many transplant patients, was able to contact the family of her heart donor. His name was Scott Phillips, he had worked as a computer programmer and happened to love cheese enchiladas. But it was the circumstances of his death, says Sherman, that have helped her to understand her anger. "His mother told me, 'Scott died in a fight,' " says Sherman. "It was important to understand these feelings when everything else in my life was going so well." Meeting Sherman in person in January 2003 also brought comfort to the donor's family, who felt, to some degree at least, as if they were once again in the presence of a loved one. "His mother said to me, 'Even though you have different color eyes, I can still see him through you,' " says Sherman.
Despite often positive changes, some organ recipients also experience guilt or sadness because their renewed health has come from someone else's death. That, too, can help reshape their lives. Dottie O'Connor, 38, of Bradford, Mass., suffered from cystic fibrosis all her life until her lung transplant a decade ago from a man she learned was a 37-year-old mountain climber. "You're so happy and grateful, but you know there is another family out there who is sad on that day," says O'Connor, who has made it a tradition to climb a different mountain on that date each year—alone, leaving her husband, John, 33, behind—to place a yellow rose on top in memory of her donor. "I almost feel like he's climbing with me," she says, "because when I take the steps, those are his lungs." Though she never thought much about scaling heights before surgery, she says she now has a profound feeling of being at home whenever she drives or flies near mountains. "It's very strange," she says. "How can you explain that?"
Skeptics say what O'Connor and others have experienced is simply the overwhelming emotion that comes from receiving part of another human being's body. Is there something more? Copeland, the University of Arizona transplant surgeon, says the very process of being an organ recipient is life-altering, often making recipients the focus of attention in ways they have never experienced. Although he has serious doubts that they may also inherit memories and tastes from their donors, Copeland says the topic merits further study. "I think it is highly unlikely that it is true," he says of the cellular memory theory, "but I wouldn't rule it out totally."
Whatever the explanation, the recipients almost universally share one trait: gratitude. Brian Histand of Perkasie, Pa., was only 24 when a virus attacked his heart, leaving him fighting for his life at Philadelphia's Temple University hospital. Two electronic devices did his heart's work for seven months, until December 2003, when he received a heart transplant. All he knows about his new heart is that it came from a healthy, athletic man who lived in another state and had type O blood. Frankly, for Brian, that's enough. "He has a much stronger craving for life," says his wife, Stephanie, 27. The couple recently purchased a 17-ft. camper, and in May they plan to head west for a long-awaited vacation in Montana and California. In part, it's a celebration of the gift of life Histand shares with thousands of other organ recipients. Says his mother, Mary: "He's glad for the chance to be alive."
Can a heart transplant change your personality?
Dick Cheney's recent surgery has fuelled debate, with some scientists saying it is possible, thanks to "cellular memory."
Dick Cheney’s recent heart surgery has fuelled a debate about whether a new heart can change a person’s personality.
Some believe the former U.S. vice president’s new heart has the potential to change him — possibly making the 71-year-old, known for his rough exterior, into a kinder guy. The process is based on “cellular memory,” where organs, including the heart, retain information from their previous owners.
Gary Schwartz, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, predicts it is scientifically possible for a donor’s personality traits to transfer to the recipient.
In 2002, Schwartz alongside Paul Pearsall of the University of Hawaii and Linda Russek of the University of Arizona published a study in the Journal of Near-Death Studieslooking at 10 heart transplant cases. Pearsall had interviewed transplant recipients, their families and the donor’s family, with Schwartz and Russek looking at the cases, finding parallels between the donor and recipient.
The parallels ranged from the same taste in food and music to sexual and job preferences. In some cases, “perceptions of names and sensory experiences related to the donors” were evident, Schwartz and his colleagues wrote.
Schwartz explains the parallels by saying all “systems” in the body, including the brain and heart, which have feedback loops, store energy and information producing memory. Feedback loops, Schwartz says, process and transfer information back and forth in a system.
Because of the feedback loops, the heart is able store energy and information for the same reason the brain does, he adds.
“The prediction is that the memory exists in every heart. . . the question is what percentage of people who then receive a heart would become aware of that information, or be significantly influenced from it, compared to the power of their own memories that would be competing with the memories of the donor’s heart,” Schwartz says.
“The answer, of course, is we don’t know. Based on the available data I would say that (the percentage) is relatively small.”
Schwartz says the stress of heart surgery, the use of immunosuppressant medications and the controversial nature of the topic make it hard for researchers to know how many heart transplant patients notice changes.
He adds there are “a lot of incentives” for patients to not pay attention to these cues.
It’s somewhat scary “to think you might be picking up the history of the donor, particularly if you don’t know that history. Secondly, you don’t want to be labelled as crazy.”
All organ donors in Canada and the United States are anonymous, making it impossible for recipients to know the identity of their donor.
Dr. Heather Ross, medical director of the Heart Transplant Program at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre in Toronto, says there is no scientific evidence that such a thing happens.
“It’s been out in the pop culture (realm) for a long time, for sure,” Ross says.
She says the stress of the whole transplant experience — from finding out something is wrong to the surgery and recovery itself — can make people reflect on their life, and feel different after the surgery.
Ross and her team studied heart transplant recipients to understand what it was like for a patient to undergo a transplant.
“We actually didn’t find anything to substantiate that having a transplant actually philosophically changed you into somewhat more like the donor. It certainly is (a) life-impacting surgery and in that respect, can change outlook, change how you see the world, but it doesn’t make you like red shoes.”