Less than two years ago, Debbi Bendon couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without stopping three times to catch her breath.
Not even with the help of supplemental oxygen.
Sometimes, as she gasped for air, she wondered if it would be her last breath.
Nowadays, Bendon exercises for 90 minutes without stopping. She does yoga, she walks her dog, runs 5Ks, plays in a pool league and dotes on her grandkids.
She cheers for her beloved Michigan State Spartans. She travels with her husband.
How did such dramatic change come about?
Bendon overflows with gratitude for the gift that gave her new life.
In December 2014, she received a double lung transplant from the Spectrum Health Richard DeVos Heart & Lung Transplant program, making her the 25th person to undergo the procedure since the hospital starting performing lung transplants in February 2013.
“I am just so grateful,” Bendon said. “I thank God every day for my donor and her family.”
I picked up and a nice voice said, ‘How would you like to get your new lungs today?’ It was amazing.
Bendon, who has since met her donor’s mother and grandmother, remembers the morning of Dec. 16, 2014.
The phone rang before 7 a.m. She thought it might be her daughter.
“I picked up and a nice voice said, ‘How would you like to get your new lungs today?’” Bendon recalled. “It was amazing.”
She had been waiting for the call since six months earlier, having been placed on the transplant list after exhausting her treatment options.
As a former smoker suffering from emphysema, her lungs functioned at just 16 percent. She needed supplemental oxygen around the clock.
The morning of the transplant, she and her husband, Duke, drove from their home in Greenville, Michigan, to Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, with Bendon’s daughter and 12-year-old grandson riding along.
Bendon remembers praying for her donor’s family.
“On the way, we talked about the blessing I was getting, but we also talked about the family that lost someone,” Bendon said. “I want to always honor the gift and keep them in our hearts and prayers because of their loss.
“I thought about what they were dealing with, and how generous and kind they were to make that choice to give someone a new chance at life,” she said.
She vowed to honor this gift by staying in good shape and keeping her lungs healthy.
Six months after her transplant, Bendon began the process of reaching out to her donor’s family through Gift of Life, the organ and tissue donation organization in Michigan that brings donor families and organ recipients together.
She sent the agency a letter, along with pictures of a balloon launch her daughter organized in Greenville to mark the one-year anniversary of her transplant. More than 100 people attended the event, including other organ transplant recipients and donor families.
In February 2015, Bendon received a letter from her donor’s mother.
She started reading it to her husband but couldn’t even finish it, overcome by emotion.
She handed the letter to her husband to finish reading.
“He wasn’t reading, so I said, ‘Please, read it to me,’” Bendon said. “But he was crying, too. It was like we had known each other forever. It was just like we were best friends catching up with each other.”
Soon after, Bendon and the donor’s mother and grandmother met face to face.
The donor’s mother chose not to be interviewed for this story, but she did share this: “We knew that (the donor) would have wanted to help others. It also makes us feel good to know that someone was helped by her.”
Bendon is keeping her vow to take good care of her new lungs.
She sailed through her post-transplant rehabilitation and set a goal of running at least 30 minutes on the treadmill.
She soon surpassed that goal and set her sights on a 5K.
In April she completed the Yellow Jacket Challenge in Greenville, and she followed it up with another 5K over Memorial Day weekend in her hometown of Sheridan, Michigan.
Bendon receives tremendous support and joy from her children, Josh, Venus and Casey. She beams when she talks about her seven grandchildren, one of them born just since her transplant.
She also meets with a group of fellow lung transplant recipients every week in Greenville, where they gather for a Bible study.
Bendon’s transplant pulmonologist, Reda Girgis, MD—the medical director of Spectrum Health’s lung transplant program—is a hero, as far as Bendon’s family is concerned.
Bendon’s 13-year-old grandson said exactly that: “Dr. Girgis is our hero.”
Dr. Girgis joined Spectrum Health in 2012 to lead the multidisciplinary team that evaluates potential lung transplant recipients. He also provides preoperative and follow-up care.
The transplant program is a tremendous asset for the community in Grand Rapids, Dr. Girgis said.
“Prior to that, patients had to drive to Ann Arbor or Detroit or other places,” the doctor said. “This is a very complicated procedure requiring an intense evaluation process prior to transplant, as well as an intense regimen after transplant.
“Having to go out of town or far away for that is difficult,” he said.
No matter the location, of course, a lung transplant is a remarkable procedure. It’s life-saving and life-changing, Dr. Girgis said.
“It is very gratifying to the patients whose lives are saved,” the doctor said. “But also to the physicians, it’s gratifying to see people who have done so well.”
Bendon is one of those patients doing quite well.
She has gone from 16 percent lung function to 122 percent. Many variables affect lung function after transplantation, allowing some patients to gain lung function that exceeds 100 percent.
Bendon jokes that she’s working on taking such good care of her new lungs, she can become the first person to be a re-transplant donor.
“Dreams come true,” Bendon said. “Miracles do happen. Prayers are answered. That kind of wraps it up for me.”