LEXINGTON, Ky. (Sept. 5, 2017) – Glenda Brown used to wake up suddenly in the middle of the night, starved for breath. Seeking relief, she'd race to throw open her bedroom window just to inhale a rush of cold air to soothe her cramping chest.
Diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 2001, the 62-year-old Winchester resident spent nearly two decades fighting for each breath. Like many of her generation, Brown says she began smoking when she was just 17 years old.
But in 2000, nearly 30 years after she first picked up a cigarette, Brown became fed up and quit cold turkey.
"I quit because I wanted to quit," she said. "I just said, let's see how long I can go without one – and I kept going."
Though she had successfully quit smoking, Brown's breathing worsened over the years. A quality engineer for L3 Communications, she had to quit the job she loved once she required oxygen 24/7. In 2008, her husband died, leaving her largely caring for herself at home.
She ultimately developed severe bronchitis in late 2009, leading to a hospitalization. Her local physician referred her to a doctor in Lexington, who in turn referred her to UK HealthCare for a lung transplant.
However, Brown didn't take the referral – at least not right away. The thought of undergoing a transplant frightened her, and she thought if she just waited a little longer, the situation would improve.
"I was trying to fool myself," she said. "I put off going to UK for years because I was so scared."
A Florida native, Brown said she had friends and family back home begging her to return to the Sunshine State, with a cousin even suggesting she come see a local pulmonologist in Gainesville who specialized in transplant and had cared for an acquaintance.
"She kept telling me, 'You need to come down here and see this doctor, he's the best,'" Brown recalled.
Brown finally relented and came to UK to complete the evaluation for lung transplant, meeting Dr. Maher Baz – who had just joined the UK Transplant Center and just happened to be the same Florida pulmonologist her cousin had suggested she come see.
"She was barely able to live independently," Baz said. "She was on oxygen around the clock and couldn't do much outside the house."
Brown took an instant liking to Dr. Baz – and yet still couldn't bring herself to do a full transplant workup just yet. She waited nearly two more years before finally coming back to complete all the necessary testing patients must undergo before being listed for a transplant. When she finally returned to UK, Baz said he could tell that she'd had enough.
"I think she decided to throw caution to the wind once she convinced herself that this is not a life she wanted to live," Baz said. "She embraced change, and decided to replace it with an active and independent lifestyle."
"I decided to leave it all in God’s hands and had the attitude that if this is to happen, then it will happen," Brown said.
On March 9, 2016, Brown was officially listed for transplant. Most patients in Brown's situation might wait months or even years to hear good news, but just four short days later, she got a call at home from the transplant nurse coordinator at UK.
"She told me they'd found a matching pair of lungs, and did I want them?" Brown said. "I said, 'Yes!' It was the scariest time of my life."
UK HealthCare cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Alexis Shafii performed Brown's surgery. Though the procedure was successful, Brown says she woke up expecting to feel instant relief in her breathing pattern, only to find herself still gasping in short, shallow breaths. Shafii calmly told her she would need to retrain her body.
"He said, 'Breathe, Glenda, let those lungs do their job,'" she said. "I was so used to shallow breathing that I actually had to practice deep breathing."
Brown spent three months in the ICU following her transplant and has been undergoing pulmonary and physical therapy to strengthen her lungs and body ever since. Almost 18 months post-transplant, she says her quality of life has dramatically improved and she's been more active than ever – even taking Zumba for the first time.
"I get to live again," Brown said. "I'm doing things I haven't been able to do in years."
Lung transplants are notorious for being the riskiest of all organ transplants – they are especially vulnerable to infection, because the lungs are the only transplanted organ that are regularly exposed to the environment through the process of breathing. They are also more difficult to harvest because of infection risk and because the soft, pliable tissue is easily injured.
The average lifespan of transplanted lungs averages 5-6 years, though some patients are able to keep their lungs for a decade or more. Improving lung transplant outcomes continue to be a point of focus for medical teams across the country. As UK builds the capacity of its lung transplant program, the team has achieved some excellent progress on that front – their survival rates are consistently better than the national benchmark, with the most recent biannual report from the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients (SRTR) showing that UK currently has the best one-year survival rates for lung transplant in the country.
As the medical director of the lung transplantation program at UK, Baz credits a team approach for their success, noting that it takes the collaboration of surgeons, pulmonologists, nurses, nurse coordinators, physical therapists, dietitians, discharge planners and social workers to help patients achieve optimal outcomes. And the team is growing as patient volume grows: another lung transplant surgeon will be joining UK in a few months, with two more pulmonologists coming on board over the next year.
"We meet as a group and try to have a consensus on all major decisions involving patient care," Baz said. "It takes the dedication of every team member. Repetition sharpens your skills; plus a bit of luck helps. But luck also favors the prepared mind."
As for Brown, Baz says her prognosis looks very good for the foreseeable future – she's able to live independently, stay active, and can travel without barriers and without oxygen tanks for the first time in years. After another year or two in Winchester, she plans to move back to Florida to spend quality time with her son, stepdaughter and four grandchildren.
And though many former smokers say they still sometimes long for a draw on a cigarette even decades after they've quit, Brown says she has no desire whatsoever to pick up a cigarette again, a resolve that was strengthened by the gift she's been given.
"I know exactly what I went through when smoking, and what it did to my lungs," she said. "And I would never disrespect the person who gave me these new lungs… I'm so blessed."
Although hospitals are obligated by law to identify potential donors and inform families of their right to donate, anyone can sign up to become an organ donor by joining the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry. The registry is a safe and secure electronic database where a person’s wishes regarding donation will be carried out as requested.
To join the registry, visit www.donatelifeky.org or sign up when you renew your driver’s license. The donor registry enables family members to know that you chose to save and enhance lives through donation. Kentucky’s “First Person Consent” laws mean that the wishes of an individual on the registry will be carried out as requested.
UK is the University for Kentucky. At UK, we are educating more students, treating more patients with complex illnesses and conducting more research and service than at any time in our 150-year history. To read more about the UK story and how you can support continued investment in your university and the Commonwealth, go to: uky.edu/uk4ky. #uk4ky #seeblue