Poster Child for a Successful Lung Transplant
After Lisa Wright was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis three and a half years ago, she feared she had just six months to live. Her brother had died of the same condition, and she assumed the worst.
Instead of giving up, however, she took matters into her own hands. Wright, 58, decided to change her lifestyle to give herself the best possible chance to beat her lung disease. She started eating healthier, taking vitamins and exercising, while still working in alumni relations at the Chamberlain College of Nursing.
“I decided my outcome was not going to be the same as my brother’s,” said Wright, of Elgin, Ill.
Despite these lifestyle changes, her condition worsened over the next few years. In August 2012, Mary Strek, MD, co-director of the Interstitial Lung Disease Program at the University of Chicago Medicine, suggested that she get evaluated as a candidate for a lung transplant. By November, Wright was on the waiting list, and just a month later she received a transplant.
Sangeeta Bhorade, MD, medical director of the lung transplantation program, said the process from diagnosis to transplant moved so quickly for Wright because of the multidisciplinary approach at the University of Chicago.
“If a patient comes here, we can offer all the different types of therapies,” she said. “Had she gone somewhere else, it’s not clear she would have been referred to transplant as quickly as she was.”
The lung transplant team at the University of Chicago Medicine has a long history of multidisciplinary collaboration. The program started in 2005, when a team of two pulmonologists and one cardiothoracic surgeon -- along with an anesthesiologist and four nurses -- moved to the University of Chicago from Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill.
Bhorade said moving as a team allowed them to establish a successful program quickly.
“Lung transplants require a multidisciplinary approach. You need a whole team that works well together in order for a program like this to really start and maintain itself,” she said. “It’s about having a whole team to allow for growth and development of that structure.”
The infrastructure at the University of Chicago Medicine allows the team to manage care for patients like Wright after surgery, from nutrition and rehabilitation to psychological counseling and social work, to help them adjust to life after transplantation. The team performs about 15 lung transplants per year. It’s operative and post-operative results are at the national average in the United States, with one-year survival of approximately 80 percent.
Wickii Vigneswaran, MD, surgical director of the lung transplant program, said these procedures are complex and difficult for a number of reasons. The lungs are susceptible to infections because they are exposed to the environment, and they are highly sensitive to changes in the body.
“Even a small problem in the lung can affect its function, oxygenation, so it’s a delicate organ to maintain. Any environment changes and fluid shifts in the body can affect the lung more easily,” he said.
In 2005, the organ allocation policy in the United States was changed to require that donor lungs go to patients who are most likely to benefit from a transplant. Prior to that, lungs went to those who had been on the waiting list for the longest time. Vigneswaran said this means they are now transplanting patients who are more critically ill.
“Before the change, these people wouldn’t live long enough to get a transplant. They couldn’t wait long enough, and these patients, because they are chronically debilitated, don’t have much reserve. They have wasted muscles, less body weight, lower body mass index,” he said. “Now we can get them on the waiting list right away. That’s where the benefit from these transplants comes from, because they are so sick.”
With thoracic surgeon and lung transplant specialist Christopher Wigfield, MD, joining the staff in spring 2013, the team looks to increase the number of transplants it performs. Those additional resources, along with continued collaboration with University of Chicago researchers and physicians from other specialties, will allow the lung transplant team to continue the mission they began together back in 2005.
Wright credits her new, healthier lifestyle and this team approach for her quick recovery as well. She went home from the hospital five days after her transplant, half the usual recovery time and just in time to spend Christmas with her family. By the end of the first week, she was back to many of her usual activities.
She said doctors called her a poster child for a successful lung transplant.
“I had a fabulous experience with the entire lung transplant team,” she said. “Every step of the way, they have been there for me.”