The nurse from Inova Fairfax Hospital called me at work on Tuesday afternoon, April 1, 2008. “We have a lung for you,” she said. “How soon can you get here?”
By 4 a.m. on Wednesday, I was resting in Intensive Care with my, well, not new, but previously owned lung. Some of my long-time coworkers were curious what it was like to go through an organ transplant process. I’m sharing my experience. It’s the first time I was ever truly impressed with modern medical advances.
How Did I Get to Need a Transplant?
I was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) in 2004. Little is known about how IPF starts, but for some reason the body senses the lungs are under attack from an intruder. Cells respond by rushing to the targeted area and creating scar tissue as protection. But they don’t stop attacking. They keep producing scar tissue until the lungs are completely scarred.
As a result, you can’t absorb oxygen through normal breathing. This not only affects your ability to conduct daily life but also begins to damage the brain, liver and pancreas. We don’t know how to stop or even slow the scarring. There are more than 100 suspected IPF triggers, ranging from factory dust to smoking to ulcers to genetics. By last summer, I could absorb only 30 percent of the oxygen from air that a healthy person would.
How Did I Get Into an Organ Donor Program?
Lungs are one of the organs listed in the national database utilized by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). To be listed in UNOS, you must be deemed healthy enough that an organ transplant will help you live longer. For two months I went through extensive testing on every major organ, my circulatory system, my digestive system — even my teeth.
I was listed in the directory on December 21, 2007. “Listing” is really two separate events. I was listed in the UNOS directory of 50,000 to 75,000 people nationwide who are awaiting transplants of all kinds. More importantly, I was placed on a list of lung candidates in the Washington, D.C. metro area. There were only 10 names on that list.
How Does a Transplant Happen?
Here’s the miracle part. Ever watch the TV program ”24” where the entire drama plays out in 24 hours? The lung transplant drama is "12." It plays out in about 12 hours.
Lungs are delicate. They deteriorate beyond use in 4 to 6 hours after death. That time limit requires the most extraordinary chain of synchronized processes you could ever imagine to bring a verified healthy donor lung from somewhere east of the Mississippi River to a verified healthy recipient at Inova Fairfax Hospital. My donor lung came from Ohio. It was removed near midnight on April 1 and airlifted to Washington, D.C.
By 4 a.m. on April 2, that new lung was in me. The other lung went to Minneapolis while other organs were shipped elsewhere. Imagine the number of private jets, ambulances and police escorts that were in motion because of this one donor.
What Happens Next?
The transplant surgery is the easy part. Inova Fairfax Hospital (the largest lung transplant hospital in the mid-Atlantic region) has a 100 percent success rate on the operation itself. The major risk is the body’s rejection of the new organ.
To counter that threat, doctors prescribe several drugs to lower your immune system. Those drugs leave you vulnerable to many different infectious diseases, so you also take antibiotics. Then you need steroids and inhalants to accelerate healing. And antacids to help you cope with all those medications.
I take 21 pills from 14 prescriptions every morning (plus others throughout the day) and stay clear of situations where I might be exposed to high levels of germs and other bacteria. That’s part of the price of a transplant.
On the other hand, I am now walking at a brisk pace with absolutely no shortness of breath. I’ll be back to work in about a month and hopefully playing tennis — after a four-year hiatus — as soon as my ribs and muscles are back in shape. I can travel again. I will live to see grandchildren. The price was right.