Saved by heart transplant, now he needs new kidney

He has survived 22 years – but pills to curb organ rejection cause new woes

The medication that South-east Asia’s first and longest-surviving heart transplant patient Seah Chiang Nee has taken for the past 22 years has damaged his kidneys.
The medication that South-east Asia’s first and longest-surviving heart transplant patient Seah Chiang Nee has taken for the past 22 years has damaged his kidneys.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - In an ironic twist of fate, the longevity of South-east Asia’s first and longest-surviving heart transplant patient has contributed to a new health problem for him.

The 10 pills that veteran journalist Seah Chiang Nee has had to take daily for the past 22 years to keep his body from rejecting the transplanted heart have damaged his kidneys.

The drugs, when used long term, can lead to high blood pressure and kidney failure.

Mr Seah, who is likely to need dialysis before the year is out, is now looking for a kidney transplant.

“A transplant will give me a better lifestyle. I do not want to spend four hours going through dialysis thrice a week,” said the former editor of the now-defunct Singapore Monitor newspaper.

“I can spend more time with my wife, Patricia, and my son, Pei Kwang, who mean the world to me,” added Mr Seah, 63, whose son is 28 years old.

Also, his medical bill – now about $700 a month – will shoot up to about $3,000 if he has to undergo dialysis.

In 1983, doctors had given him just two years to live after his heart was ravaged by the rare viral infection cardiac myocarditis.

In 1985, he received a heart from a 17-year-old Australian – who died in an accident – in a Sydney hospital.

Mr Seah, who now runs the LittleSpeck political website and writes for Malaysia’s The Star newspaper, has survived for 22 years now.

He has outlived even the surgeon who carried out his heart transplant.

In 1991, Dr Victor Chang was shot dead in a Sydney suburb by two Malaysian men who wanted to extort A$3 million (S$3.92 million) from him.

One of Dr Chang’s early patients, Mr Seah is now hoping that the doctor who performs his kidney transplant will be just as good.

Dr Bernard Kwok, director of Singapore’s Heart Failure Programme at the National Heart Centre, told The Straits Times that the chance of survival is better after a kidney transplant rather than dialysis.

Studies have shown that the chances of a successful transplant are higher for those who have not had dialysis.

But the transplant queue here is a long one - there were 541 patients on the waiting list for kidneys at the beginning of February - and Mr Seah’s age and medical history may prevent his name going on the list.

Also, although Singapore had 117 kidney transplant patients and six heart transplant patients last year, Ministry of Health records show that no patient has ever undergone both a heart and a kidney transplant here.

Dr Michael Lim, president of the Asian Pacific Society of Cardiology, pointed out the dangers of a heart transplant patient getting a kidney replaced.

His arteries are more likely to narrow and trigger a heart attack, he said. There is also a higher risk of infection because the body’s immune system has been weakened by long-term medication.

However, Dr Pary Sivaraman, consultant kidney and transplant physician at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, said if the heart patient is assessed to be healthy and fit enough to undergo the surgery, his survival rate is not going to be very different from a normal patient.