CHICAGO—One patient is a judge. Another is a 21-year-old whose medical odyssey was chronicled in a documentary. A third is a teacher.
They are among five people fortunate to have received restored lives through lung transplants, during a record-breaking day for the procedure in Illinois.
In about 25 hours on May 8 and 9, teams at Loyola University Medical Center performed a staggering five lung transplants, including a double-lung transplant on one woman and the second transplant in three years for another patient. No other medical center in Illinois has performed that many lung transplants in such a short time.
It remains unclear if another hospital in the U.S. has done so, but five is the average number of lung transplants performed every day across the entire U.S., according to statistics from United Network for Organ Sharing.
The surgeries occurred as a result of the spontaneous availability of the organs and Loyola’s capacity to handle that many transplants when the organs were donated, said Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, Loyola’s surgical director of lung transplantation, who performed two of the five surgeries.
“This was unique, just with the sheer volume and the number of surgeons involved,” Schwartz said on Wednesday. He called it “a real monumental effort, but Loyola’s open 24/7, so they’re used to working through the night.”
Schwartz’s rough estimate was that the schedules of 31 doctors, nurses and other specialists — many who were not on call — had to be coordinated to perform the surgeries. Four of those surgeries occurred simultaneously in two operating rooms, Schwartz said.
“When you see these patients in clinic and they’re on oxygen and they’re gasping, just conversationally short of breath,” Schwartz said, “that’s when you appreciate just how desperate these people are for a chance to have a normal life again. For us, it’s easy. An offer comes (and) you feel compelled to give them any chance that they may have to improve their quality of life.”
That sentiment ratchets up the adrenaline and suppresses fatigue, added Schwartz, who went home for three hours of sleep between his two surgeries last week.
Julie D’Agostino, 21, of Elmhurst, was one of the two patients Schwartz operated on. Suffering from cystic fibrosis, a thick, life-threatening buildup of mucous in the lungs, D’Agostino received her first lung transplant in 2011 at Loyola, and her ordeal was told in a 40-minute documentary, “Miracle on South Street.”
One year after that surgery, her body began rejecting the lungs, and she was placed on a waiting list. Experts said her immune system would reject 99 percent of donor lungs.
But a lung match was found last week, and she underwent surgery on May 9 to replace one of her failing lungs. On Wednesday, doctors said she was doing well. D’Agostino was encouraged because, she said, she felt much better after this surgery than after her first procedure.
“I feel good, really, really good,” said D’Agostino, seated in her hospital room. “It feels like me, like that’s how things were supposed to be and that’s how lungs should work. They seem normal to me again.”
Like many lung recipients, she said she feels pressure not “to sit around my whole life, waiting like I was waiting for new lungs. So, I’m going to find something, and I want everyone to be happy for me that she used these lungs the best way that she could, and I hope I do.”
She has a bond with patient Robert Senander, 68, a Social Security administrative law judge in Oak Brook who suffered from pulmonary fibrosis since 2009. The same donor supplied a lung to each.
Senander, like D’Agostino, was sitting in a bedside chair Wednesday chatting with his wife, Zita. About 18 hours after surgery, he walked the hall outside his room. On Tuesday, he’d increased that distance to two walks, a total of 800 feet without supplemental oxygen. That was the first time in about three years he could do that.
“That made me feel very good,” he said. “It’s just a rebirth, a reopening. That was marvelous.”
In addition to D’Agostino and Senander, the other patients were Karen Emerich, 56, a seventh-grade special education teacher from New Carlisle, Ind., who received a double-lung transplant. Linda Kern, 65, of Princeton, Ill., and Springfield resident Roderick Beck, 67, executive director of the Township Officials of Illinois Risk Management Association, received single lungs from donors.
Dr. Daniel Dilling, Loyola’s medical director of lung transplantation, treats patients before and after surgery. The critical concern for many recipients, he said, is the body’s rejection of the lungs and infection, which can take months or years to develop.
Immediate prospects for the five patients are encouraging. Some were sitting up having coffee with family a few hours after surgery, Dilling said. They were expected to start leaving the hospital on Thursday.
“When it goes well, it goes really well,” Dilling said. “Patients return to work. They return to full-time child care. They can return to golfing and going to church and the full complement of what life has to offer. That’s what we look at as the goal.”
The biggest problem in the field of transplantation is the severe lack of organs, experts say. A single donor can save or enhance the lives of up to 50 people through organ, eye and tissue donation, according to the organ sharing network.
Donors and their families who decide to donate the organs of their loved ones “are the real heroes,” Schwartz said.
Senander’s eyes welled and his voice cut out when he spoke of donors.
“They can change a lot of lives,” he said, “the individual recipient, all of those around them and then all the things that recipient would be able to do for people.”
Added D’Agostino: “It changes you… to live in the moment. Like my mom was saying, we don’t know what the future holds. Worry is just stupid because we don’t know what’s going to be next. I never thought I could be doing this again and it happened. I’m so grateful for another chance.”