Healing After A Double Lung Transplanta

Inoperable lung disease is no fun for anyone, let alone a 36-year-old woman just getting started with her life.

That’s why Samantha (not her actual name) is now living in small apartment 15 minutes from her chosen transplant hospital, three states away from her former home. As of last week, she was waiting for the lung transplant that would ultimately give her a new lease on life.

Diagnosed with a condition called pulmonary hypertension in 2017, Samantha was just listed as approved on the National Lung Transplant Registry this past November. Since then, she has been waiting for the ideal transplant lungs for her body. She has had five “almosts,” where she was told there was a possible match, went to the hospital to undergo blood and body match tests, and prepare for possible surgery.

In and of itself, this process of “get ready, wait and see” is emotionally exhausting for everyone involved. For the staff in the hospital transplant unit, it’s all hands on deck. Lots of testing, lab work, patient stats, monitoring, study of new lung tissue, and readying for this extremely intense 10-hour procedure.

For the patient, it’s “This might be it! Time to get your adrenaline in check” and talk to those you love about your hope.

And then, four hours of waiting to hear about lab results – and about the condition of someone else’s former lungs. Are they pink and viable? Are they scarred by whatever conditions the donor lived through? Will they fit Samantha’s rather small chest cavity? Will her body adjust to them? And of course, “Will this time be a (near-)perfect match?”

Finally, Samantha and her family got an early Christmas gift. Donor lungs number 6 were a near perfect match. Sarah’s doctor gave her – and her sister and mother waiting in the family area — the fantastic news. Sarah, who was already on the operating table, ready for the surgery, hoisted two thumbs up.

Here is Samantha’s sister’s account of the procedure:

“It’s absolutely stunning how much happens in the hospital hour-to-hour (and sometimes minute-to-minute.) It’s also amazing how much happened to change Samantha’s life in just a few days! Our family has more blessings than we can count, and it has been such a privilege to witness my younger sister’s transformation firsthand.

Here are a few of the highlights:

“Samantha’s chest was purposely left open after the initial transplant surgery on December 24th so that her new lungs could adjust to their new home. The surgery went better than anyone could have scripted. With another little “lung trim” (who knew this was even possible?), Samantha’s new lungs are a perfect fit in her chest cavity. Her long over-stressed heart is loving her new lungs.”

Samantha got her breathing tube out on Christmas day – an incredible Christmas present that made a HUGE difference in getting her over the hump in recovery. It also meant Samantha could finally talk – however scratchily — to her nurses and her family.

“Amazingly, Samantha sat up, stood and walked 200 feet the day after her chest cavity was closed, December 26th. Mom and I were gobsmacked!

“Motivated to do more, Samantha then went for the full 400-ft lap around the ICU – twice – to a round of applause from her nursesShe also passed her ‘swallow test,’ meaning she is cleared to eat and drink (no more feeding tube) with no restrictions except for the foods transplant recipients must avoid. Her nurse had to get extra pen and paper for her lunch and dinner orders!”

“With all this progress, Samantha was released from the ICU to the step-down unit, where she is looking for every opportunity to walk more laps  — Watch out, neighbors!—with the goal of an early discharge.”

“As the world heads into a third year of a miserable pandemic that chiefly affects the lungs, we are especially grateful for healthcare workers who somehow continue to deliver excellent care in the face of so many hardships.

“On top of that, our Samantha was in the ICU over the Christmas holiday as the Omicron variant was surging. There were so many people involved in carrying for her through this past week, we are offer blessings to every member of the transplant unit staff.”

“My heart is especially grateful for the dedicated staff who brought a wonderful mix of no-kidding medical expertise and genuine personal care for Sarah. And of course, to the much-beloved head of the pulmonary transplant team, who made the rounds on Samantha on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Sunday after Christmas.”

“Even in Samantha’s post-op delirium, my sister felt seen by her transplant doc and expressed her gratitude for the way he gave her a ‘voice’ in her care. Hopefully, this seasoned surgeon —a pretty quiet, serious, mild-mannered guy—appreciated Samantha’s ‘flair’ that managed to keep the whole transplant team in stitches on Sunday morning rounds. So great to hear the laughter!”

“What we have witnessed this past week is nothing short of miraculous, but we haven’t forgotten that Samantha remains fragile. We cherish your prayers as we move to the next phase!”

Happy New Year to all of you in the transplant profession! Your amazing work and experience is truly transformative. Just ask Samantha.