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For those who don’t know her, and they seem few, Cleo Cloud is something of an institution at UCSD Medical Center. In 1998, after retiring from a 25 year-plus career at UCSD Medical Center, and recovering from a single lung transplant in 1992, Cloud approached Cecilia Smith, D.O., who headed up the lung transplant program at that time.
Cloud told her that while she was ready to retire, she “wasn’t ready to give up. I had a volunteer idea of something important I wanted to do for the Lung Transplant Program. I wanted to be a liaison for the lung transplant patients, someone who could take them around and explain the whole process. Sort of a mentor. That didn’t exist when I had my transplant.”
Smith recalls Cloud from her pre-transplant days. “Though her disease limited her I could tell she had a lot of energy. I was so impressed with her, she always had a positive attitude, the cup was always half-full,” she says. “She faced her transplant with dignity and courage.” When Cloud approached her with the volunteer liaison idea she thought it was a terrific idea.
“Cleo knew what she wanted to do, what was needed. She knows the program and the process from both the patient and the staff side. We realized she could provide a kind of support to the patients that no one else on the team side could do,” says Smith.
Cloud knows well how having a liaison, a support person, is vitally important. But it was her relationship with Smith that motivated her to step forward. She says Smith “was such a good doctor to me. I’m doing this for her because she means so much to me. They haven’t even invented a word to describe her. She was with me throughout my whole transplant, she got me through it.”
UCSD’s Lung Transplant Program is one of the oldest in the country. At over 250 transplants to date, more lung transplants have been performed at UCSD than at any institution on the west coast of the United States. Between 20 and 30 of the average 84 lung transplants in the state annually are performed at UCSD, which U.S. News & World Report recently ranked eighth among the top 50 hospitals in treatment of respiratory illnesses.
Cloud and Smith began working together to develop the volunteer liaison position. Ever since Cloud has been orienting and mentoring two to four lung and heart transplant patients every week.
On the first day a patient comes to the hospital Cloud meets and welcomes new patients to the medical center. She takes them on a tour of all the places they will need to visit, then escorts them for their initial work-ups in the blood draw lab. On the second day she brings the patients to an educational session where they learn about the transplant process, meet the transplant coordinators, the social worker and arrange their finances. During this educational meeting, Cloud reveals that she is a 12-year transplant veteran.
“People are amazed. I don’t tell them the first day because I want them to see me in action, see that I’m healthy and normal. It gives them hope,” Cloud says.
She also honestly warns them that their transplant might not work, that bacteria, and injury to the lung might cause failure. “I try my best to prep them for the emotional roller coaster they are about to take,” she says.
On days three and four Cloud escorts her patients for more tests, CT Scans, Ventilator Perfusion Scans to determine lung capacity, and heart catheterization. Cloud says the tests often frighten patients who are wary of facemasks and lying down because of breathing difficulties. If necessary she stays with the patients to reassure and help them get through the procedures.
When patients finally receive their transplants she visits, comforts and encourages them through the healing process.
Because of her unique position, patients often ask Cloud non-medical but pressing questions they might not be comfortable asking their physician or nurse.
“People often ask me that if they receive someone’s lung or heart, if they will take on that person’s personality. They ask because they’ve heard that people go through big changes and sometimes aren’t the same after a transplant.” she says. “I tell them, no, you can’t absorb someone’s personality through an organ. It’s the meds that cause the big changes.”
Cloud takes great pride in her position and the immeasurable assistance she has been able to provide to both patients and staff. And the team takes great pride in Cloud.
“She’s developed a bridge to the care team, yet she’s a member of the team,” says Smith. “She helps the team focus on what’s needed. Cleo is absolutely instrumental to helping patients get through the transplant process for many reasons but also because she picks up on people’s moods and needs. She knows how to make a gray day sunny. She knows how and when to hold someone’s hand. She’s even held my hand a few times. Cleo is really an unsung hero.”
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