Lung Transplant Patient Stories
Every transplant is an incredible experience of hope and healing that can help reassure prospective patients and their loved ones about the procedure.
Meet some patients whose health and lives were transformed by the lifesaving lung transplantation program with world-class care at UC San Diego Health.
Federico Gomez Gil
"I feel so much better today. ... I am so blessed to be a success story."
A severe case of COVID-19 led to pneumonia that permanently impaired a healthy Escondido resident's ability to breathe — and eventually resulted in a double lung transplant.
Federico Gomez Gil, 56, had to be placed on a ventilator and then on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) for more than 50 days as his condition worsened.
But ECMO is not a permanent remedy. And as the days passed, it became clear that Gomez Gil would require some form of ventilation for the rest of his life.
The solution was a double lung transplant. That's when a multidisciplinary team of physical therapists, respiratory therapists, pulmonologists and surgeons began working around the clock to get him strong enough to be a viable candidate for transplant surgery, which remains relatively rare. COVID-19 added a new and unknown factor.
Gomez Gil's story is an example of the premiere lung transplant program and collaboration of teams at UC San Diego Health, said Kamyar Afshar, DO, medical director of the lung transplant program at UC San Diego Health.
"We take treating every patient as an individual seriously. We want them to be able to enjoy their life with their loved ones for many years," Afshar said.
"My entire medical team was brilliant. From the surgeons and physicians to all the nurses. There are not enough words to express my gratitude."
Actor Christopher Lemmon, 65, was in his hotel room after a performance at the Coronado Film Festival when he says he suddenly felt like he was falling off a cliff. "My wife says when she came into the room, I was blue." The son of legendary actor Jack Lemmon was rushed to UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest.
After having a pulmonary embolism a few years earlier, he had been diagnosed with Factor V Leiden, an inherited blood-clotting disorder that can increase the risks of developing abnormal blot clots. Lemmon, who had three more pulmonary embolisms, was going to undergo final evaluations for lung transplant consideration near his home in Connecticut.
But everything changed after he was admitted to UC San Diego Medical Center for severe inflammation of his lungs from IPF, called an IPF exacerbation, which landed him in critical condition and in need of a double lung transplant. Lemmon "was very ill and did not have much time left," said Kamyar Afshar, DO, medical director of the lung transplant program at UC San Diego Health.
After nine days in the hospital, a pair of lungs became available for Lemmon from a deceased donor who had been infected with hepatitis C, but the infection was eradicated after a few months of medication.
It took him approximately six weeks to start feeling more like himself. Several years after the transplant, he had had no infections or signs of rejection. "I want to say a sincere thank you to my donor," Lemmon said. "This individual saved my life. Everyone should become a donor. It gives people like me a second chance."
"My life has completely changed. I feel healthier and don't need to spend up to six hours a day trying to manage my lung function."
When Karen Atri-Mercado and her husband told their 3-year-old son that his mom was getting new lungs, he jumped up and down in excitement and covered their faces with kisses. "He was yelling, 'Mommy has new lungs. I love you, Mommy!'"
Atri-Mercado had been on the transplant waitlist for six months. She suffered from cystic fibrosis, a hereditary disease where the body produces thick and sticky mucus that can clog the lungs.
As a result, she had been hospitalized multiple times. She was on oxygen supplementation 24 hours a day when she was referred to UC San Diego Health for a double lung transplant.
"I went from living a normal life of dancing, working, being married and becoming a mother to coughing up blood, needing surgeries and being connected to a machine to help me breathe," said Atri-Mercado. "I was told by my doctors that I needed a double lung transplant or I was going to die."
When she finally got the call she had been waiting for, "we were so relieved and grateful," she said, to get lungs that were a match for her.
Eugene Golts, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon, and his surgical team successfully performed the 12-hour double lung transplant procedure. Atri-Mercado walked out of the hospital 18 days later without needing any oxygen.
She has also become a mother again through surrogacy. "We are a family of four now and are just truly enjoying life. Every day is a gift. I am super grateful to my family, the doctors and my donor. I hope my story gives hope to other moms who are going on this journey that they can get through it and live life to the fullest, post-transplant."
"The doctors and nurses on the transplant team are so compassionate."
Ricardo Sandoval was born with a rare congenital condition called situs inversus, where the major organs are on the opposite side of the body. It caused progressive issues with Sandoval's lungs. "I had a lot of coughing and shortness of breath and needed to be on oxygen. I was hospitalized several times for infections."
As time went on, Sandoval became critically ill, and medication was no longer managing his symptoms. He was placed on the lung transplant list for a year and a half. During this time, he received four calls that all ended up not being a match.
But after the fourth call ended, Sandoval received a fifth call the following morning. "I knew in my gut this time the lungs were a match, and they were." Sandoval received a double lung transplant at UC San Diego Health. "My life forever changed."
The day after surgery, Sandoval was hooked up to Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) life-support technology that is similar to a cardiopulmonary bypass machine. It allows the patient to receive oxygen directly into the blood and take out excess carbon dioxide. "The doctors and nurses on the transplant team are so compassionate. As I was hooked up to the ECMO, they carefully guided me around the hospital floor as I walked for the first time post-transplant."
Now Sandoval can walk easily on his own. "I can do all the activities and functions that most take for granted. I am so much more independent. All I can say is a sincere thank you to Dr. Eugene Golts, Dr. Gordon Yung, Dr. Kamyar Afshar, Dr. Timothy J. Floreth and the rest of the doctors and staff involved in my case, including psychologists, physical therapists and nurses. My greatest thank you, however, goes to my donor, who gave me a second chance at life."
"I'm forever grateful to Dr. Gordon Yung, his lung transplant team and the donor who gave me a second chance."
John McNamara was an athlete his whole life, so he was shocked when a chest X-ray showed widespread lung disease. He was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, which eventually made him feel "like someone was holding their hand over my mouth and nose" when he was trying to breathe.
At age 50, McNamara only had months to live. "We started making funeral arrangements. I knew a lung transplant was my only option."
After an evaluation, UC San Diego Health was his top choice for treatment, McNamara said. "The close coordination between specialties, including pharmacy, is what set the program apart." He was put on the waitlist, and four days later, he received the call that changed his entire life.
Years after his double lung transplant, he travels the world with his wife, visits transplant patients at UC San Diego Health to provide encouragement, and — with four other UC San Diego Health lung transplant recipients — has started the Lung and Heart Transplant Foundation to support families in need. "I'm forever grateful to Dr. Gordon Yung, his lung transplant team and the donor who gave me a second chance."
"I'm beyond grateful to Dr. Golts, Dr. Afshar and the donor. They saved my life and gave me the opportunity to grow old with my wife."
Clint Shilling describes his decline in health at 41 years old as "like being hit by a freight train." He was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
Two years later, his lung function was only 12%, and he could barely take five steps without being out of breath. Determined to get married, Clint and his fiancée said their vows with his oxygen tank, named "the dinosaur," standing next to them.
A year later, he received a double lung transplant, a day he considers his second birthday. He was off oxygen three days after surgery. "I'm beyond grateful to Dr. Golts, Dr. Afshar and the donor. They saved my life and gave me the opportunity to grow old with my wife."
"Every day I thank my donor, and I am determined to share my story to raise awareness about the importance of organ donation."
When Serena Ochoa was rolled into the operating room, she was "calm and at peace." The school teacher had spent the previous four years tethered to an oxygen tank after being diagnosed with a rare lung disease known as LAM.
Her condition progressed so quickly that she gasped for air while talking and her lung collapsed 22 times. She was put on the transplant waitlist. "When I finally got the call that there was a lung for me, I started hyperventilating."
Her right lung was transplanted, and the diseased lung was donated to science. "I am now walking my dogs, doing chores and learning how to live a new normal," she said.
"I would not have been able to get through this without my family's support, the incredible medical team at UC San Diego Health and Lifesharing — a Donate Life organization," Ochoa said. "Every day I thank my donor, and I am determined to share my story to raise awareness about the importance of organ donation."
"I feel that there is no greater way to pay tribute to my donor and donor family than to continue to compete and make the best I can out of my second chance at life and my new lungs."
When Erinn Hoyt graduated from San Diego State University in 2012, she walked across the stage with a portable intravenous (IV) device hidden under her robe. She had spent the previous 10 days in the ICU on a ventilator and was on the transplant list for new lungs.
"I finished my finals in my hospital room and was discharged the day before my graduation," said Hoyt. "Nothing was going to stop me from getting my diploma."
Hoyt was born with cystic fibrosis, a progressive genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections. She had been under the care of the UC San Diego Health adult cystic fibrosis team for many years, but her health was worsening.
That's when Hoyt met Kamyar Afshar, DO, director of the advanced lung disease program. "Erinn's CT scans showed permanent damage to her lungs. She needed a double transplant."
Because Hoyt's family lives in Northern California, she had the transplant performed at Stanford University Medical Center. "We worked closely with Stanford to coordinate the transplant and ensure Erinn received the highest quality of care," Dr. Afshar said.
Hoyt moved back to San Diego, and a year and a half after her transplant, she traveled to Spain for the 2017 World Transplant Games Federation. She won five silver and two bronze medals in the swimming categories.
A lung transplant does not cure cystic fibrosis. Hoyt now receives post-transplant care from Dr. Afshar and the rest of the lung transplant team.
Despite some health issues and surgeries, Hoyt won three gold and two silver medals in swimming in the American Transplant Games in Salt Lake City in August 2018.
"From transplant coordinators and social workers, pulmonologists and surgeons to dieticians and pharmacists, we all work together to give patients the opportunity to live life to the fullest again," Dr. Afshar said.