Tattoo’s & Transplant: Taboo!☠️

Of course my new tattoo would get infected. It’s my first tattoo ever. I’m 41 years old and finally a rebel, well sort of.

I’m immunosupressed, so usually tattoos are forbidden in the post Heart Transplant patient. But since they are 3D nipple tattoos to finish my reconstruction after a bilateral mastectomy for breast cancer, my transplant doctors relented and cleared me for these tattoos.

They look so real and I’m pleased to look more normal after my mastectomy. I catch a glance of myself in the mirror and I’m amazed at the realism of my tattooed nipples and how natural my fake breasts look. It’s made all the difference and instead of tears of sadness and loss, I have renewed feelings of joy about my feminity.

When I went to obtain oral antibiotics for my infected tattoo, the nurse practitioner almost gave me a lecture about the risks of getting tattoos when immunosuppressed (as if I didn’t know). Again, because the cancer card was in play, I got a pass.

Funny thing, tattoos and post-Transplant. It’s a highly debated topic on transplant Facebook groups. Many push back and refuse to stop getting tattoos, even honoring their donors with a commemorative tattoo. Which is like going out to eat at a buffet to celebrate your weight loss. (Incidentally, transplant patients can’t eat at buffets either because of risk of infection).

Dylan Lane Sepulvado has 17 tattoos, all post heart transplant. Used with permission.

Tattooing and transplant is a complicated issue because of the moral implications. I’m not talking about being a rebel without a cause in society. Tattoos are no longer just for sailors or criminals (long, interesting history on tattoos, for more watch Explained on Netflix, The Tattoo episode), rather tattoos are ordinary expressions of our unique selves.

Bottomline…you get an organ transplant to live.

Then it’s the Recipient’s moral responsibility to minimize their risk of infection to prolong their life.

Making reckless choices, such as smoking or drug use is prohibited and a medical restriction both before and after transplant.

Many consider engaging in risky post transplant choices as a moral disservice to the transplant community. Consider the experience of the donor/family, or the person that could have received the heart and all of the recipient’s caregivers, are they all supporting an un-deserving recipient? Was it a wasted organ, if someone gets a transplant and abuses their gift?

The following facts are true:

Tattooing is not like using cocaine (which is particularly harmful to the heart) and can not be equated as such, and;

Tattooing is not a safe or a good choice post transplant, every medical professional will tell you to avoid it, and;

Getting a tattoo post transplant is not the worst decision, nor does it seem to rank as morally reprehensible.

Tattooing post transplant is a poor decision and it involves risks, but it’s also not a daily lifestyle choice that will swiftly kill you.

These are just some of the reasons this issue is so complicated.

While shame is doled out to transplant recipient’s who get tattoos, it seems compassion and permission from the Transplant Team is offered when it’s for cancer recovery, go figure.

Some refer to tattoos as “mental jewelry,” and I can understand those that have this need, despite risk to express their art, it just so happens to be on their skin.

I told a transplant medical assistant I was getting ready for my 3D nipple tattoos and we got to talking about this controversial issue of tattoos and transplant. One of the other problems of post transplant tattoos is not just the risk of avoidable infection, but the notion of compliance.

If your pre-transplant and your treatment team recommends something like avoiding tattoos or getting rid of your germ carrying pet bird and you don’t follow their instruction, well the thought is: are you going to follow the rigid rules and medication protocol once you get your organ transplant?

Roo Bublitz had a heart and double lung transplant in 2014. These are actual pre and post transplant heart beats. The flatline represents when he went into cardiac arrest and died, for a short time. Photo used with permission.

If the transplant team does not think you will follow the rules or have the support system to help you through transplant, then you may not get listed for an organ transplant. Yep.

Following the rules, that is “being compliant,” in terms of organ transplant can be a life or death issue. But after transplant, all bets are off… What are they going to do, repo your organ(s)?

With so many people needing organs and so few organs to go around, the doctors have a responsibility to ensure that the organs go to responsible, capable recipients.

The doctors are also personally motivated to see that you are compliant and follow the transplant guidelines. In addition to being gatekeepers of organ transplant, their program is rated on your longevity. It’s a win-win; the longer you live, especially once you pass the 1 year and 5 year milestones, the better it is for everyone.

Jenn Fadley has had THREE heart transplants. Her father got this tattoo (his 1st ever) with all 3 dates to honor his daughter (since she can’t get a tattoo). Used with permission.

I’m not sure if I’ll get more tattoos, the jury is out. I’ve experienced great joy with my 2 tattoos (and I now have more tattoos than my twin sister), so there’s that motivation. I’m not committed to an image I want tattooed… Yet. You never know, I could end up with The Last Supper tattooed on my back as large and in color as Ben Affleck’s back tattoo.

But if I do decide to get more tattoos, I’ll have “no ragrets.”

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