The first human tissue transplant has been carried out in the Cayman Islands since the passage of a new law legalising the practice locally.
Department of Environment marine enforcement officer Erbin Tibbetts, who is based in Cayman Brac, had a knee ligament transplant in Grand Cayman earlier this month, becoming the first person to receive donated human tissue locally since legislators passed a new transplant law last month.
Cayman does not yet have an organ and tissue donor registration system so the tissue for the transplant came from an overseas donor and the ligament was flown to Cayman for the operation.
Mr. Tibbetts underwent the transplant operation on Wednesday, 3 April, to repair ligaments in his right knee, which were damaged in an old soccer injury. Orthopaedic surgeon Rick Ogilvie of the Cayman Orthopaedic Clinic on Smith Road performed the operation at the Cayman Islands Hospital*.
“I’m not supposed to walk on it for six weeks or put more than 50 pounds of weight on my leg, but I can stand on my own already,” Mr. Tibbetts said, admitting he was “anxious to get back to work”.
Mr. Tibbetts had had an earlier ligament repair operation on his knee in 1998, but that surgery involved removing one of his own ligaments from the back of his leg and transplanting it to the inside of his knee. However, within 15 minutes of returning to play soccer in 2001, his knee gave way again and has been becoming progressively worse over the years, exacerbated by a stroke three years ago which has left the left side of his body weaker than the right side, so he places more weight on his left side.
Several people in the Cayman Islands have been recipients of transplants over the years, travelling off island for operations.
However, a small number of corneal transplants, in which corneas from donors have been surgically attached to patients’ eyes have been done on island, using corneas from overseas donors.
Ophthalmologist Dr. Krishna Mani said he performed two corneal transplants in Grand Cayman in the 1980s and 1990s.
“We received the eyes from the Florida Lions Eye Bank,” said Dr. Mani, who said he has been urging the creation of an eye bank in Cayman for years, but because no law existed to allow for organ or tissue donations in Cayman, it was not possible to establish one.
The Human Tissue and Transplant Law, passed unanimously in the Legislative Assembly last month, lays the groundwork in Cayman for the establishment of an organ donor registry, Health Minister Mark Scotland said at a recent press conference.
Such a registry would allow Cayman to participate in donor registration networks in the US. “This is a very important aspect of the legislation. Prior to this, persons in need of transplants, in need of organs, found themselves very low down on ... long waiting lists for years and years and years at times for organs,” Mr. Scotland said.
He added that Cayman will be able to create its own organ donor registration which can be integrated with international and regional donation and transplant networks, which he said would give patients from Cayman greater priority on organ transplant waiting lists.
One transplant patient, Robert Hamaty, who received a new heart 17 years ago in the US, said he’s delighted to finally see an organ and tissue donation and transplant law in the Cayman Islands.
He had his transplant on 26 February, 1996 after being on a critical list for six weeks in a Miami hospital. He said that had Cayman been a signatory to a reciprocal organ programme with the US, he probably would have been able to get a new heart sooner. Tortuga Rum Company owner Mr. Hamaty, originally from Jamaica, said that at the time neither Cayman nor Jamaica had organ donor laws. Cayman now has one but Jamaica still does not.
He received a heart from a 27-year-old pilot who died in a recreational sky-diving accident. Coincidentally, Mr. Hamaty was also an airline pilot, but lost his licence due to his heart condition. He developed his heart condition, called cardiomyopathy, after getting pneumonia following a bout of flu.
“I am living proof of how successful transplants are. I was very lucky, I never had any rejection,” he said, adding that without that transplant, he would never have met his grandchildren.
Five months after his transplant, Mr. Hamaty said he approached both the Cayman and Jamaican governments urging them to take steps to introduce legislation to allow donations and transplants.
“I’ve been very disappointed that it took 17 years to happen here and hasn’t happened yet in Jamaica,” he said. “It shows how long it takes for laws to be changed, and there’s no reason for it.”
Caren Thompson-Palacio is another local person who has received a transplant which has been successful. When she was just 11 years old, Ms Thompson underwent a cornea transplant operation in Jamaica, with corneas donated from the Florida Lions Eye Bank. She had suffered from kerataconus, a debilitating condition that affects the corneas. The operation was redone, with new corneas being put in place in 1993 in one eye and in 1999 in the other, at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in the US.
She can read her computer screen now without wearing glasses, and it appears her sight is improving as the years go by.
“The sight in my left eye is now 20/15, which is better than 20/20 vision. In my right eye, it’s 20/40 because of some scar tissue,” said Ms Thompson-Palacio, business development and marketing manager at the Cayman Islands Airports Authority.
Caymanians have been recipients of hearts, lungs, kidneys and other organs over the years from the US, which makes 5 per cent of its organs available to non-US residents, meaning Cayman competes for a small percentage of organs with other countries. Even if an organ is found to be a match with a patient in Cayman, the patient would still have to travel to the US to benefit from the organ if it has already been harvested.
One person can save up to eight lives through organ donations and tissue donations can enhance the lives of up to 75 others, according to GiftLife donor programme.
Editor's Note: This story has been amended to reflect that the transplant operation was performed at the Cayman Islands Hospital.