Breathing easy with new lungs, Rose Black settled on a heartfelt description for the transplant that saved her life: “A miracle.”
Make that a miracle times four.
Black is one of four people who received new organs in 24 hours recently at the Spectrum Health Richard DeVos Heart & Lung Transplant program. Two patients received new hearts and two got new lungs during back-to-back operations Oct. 4-5.
The transplant recipients gathered Tuesday morning at the Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center to celebrate the day they received a second chance at life.
It was a family reunion of sorts.
“He is my heart brother,” said Wlodzimierz Lukasik, gesturing toward Paul Skarl.
They share the same donor—Lukasik received a heart, and Skarl received a new lung.
“I didn’t have any sisters, but now I do,” Robert Charles Highley said, smiling at Black, who sat beside him.
From their donor, Highley received a heart and Black a pair of lungs.
At the time of their operations, the recipients didn’t realize they were part of a milestone transplant-marathon moment.
“I’m amazed four were done in 24 hours,” Highley said. “I can’t believe the team could do that.”
Doctors say the four-transplant day shows how far the program has come in five years, since surgeons performed the first heart transplant in West Michigan on Nov. 27, 2010.
“It shows the program has grown up. We are no longer a fledgling program,” said Michael Dickinson, MD, the medical director for heart transplants. “We are now a very busy, mature transplant program.”
It required something of a small army to make it happen, including many who came in on their day off and those who worked through day and night, said Reda Girgis, MD, the medical director for lung transplants.
“It speaks to the commitment of everyone who works here, from the donor coordinators to the operating room staff, the surgeons, the ICU team, the people involved in post-transplant care,” he said. “It’s definitely a Herculean effort.”
When they found out donor organs were available that matched four people on the transplant list, organizers quickly began to check whether they had all the staff available to make the surgeries happen.
“We just started calling and everyone came out of the woodwork,” said Michelle Lorenz, the director of transplant programs.
With the organs from the first donor, surgeons began to operate on two patients simultaneously in two operating rooms. Dr. Martin Strueber, a cardiothoracic surgeon recruited from Germany to lead the transplant program, traveled between the two rooms.
After the operations wrapped up, a second round of surgery began.
All four recipients said they were stunned when they received the call that a transplant organ was available.
“It was a miracle,” Black said. “It was a blessing.”
Lukasik said he felt a mixture of fear and excitement as he went to the hospital for the transplant.
“When I woke up after everything, I said to myself, ‘My goodness. I’m alive. It happened,’” he said. “I’m lucky.”
The recipients expressed gratitude to the donors who made their transplants possible. Black, who waited more than eight years for new lungs, said she hopes to raise awareness about the plight of those waiting on the transplant list.
“There’s not enough donors,” she said. “There’s too many people who die waiting.”
The four recipients had different diagnoses:
- Black, 42, of Rockford, had constrictive bronchiolitis obliterans. The disease left her with only 20 percent of lung capacity. Even walking from her bedroom to her bathroom was difficult.
- Highley, 64, of Kalamazoo, had congestive heart failure and dilated left nonischemic cardiomyopathy. Since January, up until his transplant in October, he had a left ventricular assist device, a mechanical device that helps the heart pump blood.
- Skarl, 57, was diagnosed five years ago with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He said he was “going downhill fast” and was on the transplant list for 11 days before his surgery.
- Lukasik, 59, had ischemic cardiomyopathy. He used an LVAD for 10 months.
After struggling to accomplish even simple tasks pre-transplant, the four patients said they’ll now have the freedom to enjoy life, play with kids and grandkids, and plan for the future.
Highley plans to travel. Black, a mother of three, can’t wait to swim again next summer and take walks with her children.
And the effect of transplant extends far beyond the person who received a new organ, Deb Skarl said.
“Not only did they give me back my husband, they gave me back my best friend,” she said.