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She didn’t know it at the time, but 37-year-old Jennifer Jehle was in such desperate need of a lung transplant that she was given just one week to live.
Just days before that week ended last April, Jehle, who was on a CPAP machine at Yale New Haven Hospital, got the call from BWH: a pair of lungs had become available via an organ donor in Maine. She was taken to BWH by ambulance immediately, and Phillip Camp, MD, performed her double-lung transplant here several hours later.
“It was the most amazing feeling to wake up in the ICU and take a deep breath and actually feel air coming into my lungs,” said Jehle, a middle school special education teacher, who has been battling cystic fibrosis and diminishing lung capacity since she was 17.
Jehle was one of 30 recipients of lung transplants at BWH in 2008, the most the hospital has ever done in one year. “That puts us among the top hospitals in the country for volume,” said Camp, director of BWH’s Lung Transplant Program.
The program, which began at BWH in 1990, has grown rapidly in the past two years. BWH is one of three hospitals in New England to offer lung transplantation and performs about 80 percent of the region’s adult lung transplants.
“We want to make sure that transplantation is available to the greatest breadth of patients possible,” Camp said. “This is not a race for us. Our goal is to offer the best care possible to every patient.”
Sometimes that means going halfway across the country to bring back a lung. “We travel outside of New England more than half the time for organs,” Camp said.
That’s because lungs are more apt to be adversely affected in donors, with only 20 percent of donors’ lungs suitable for transplant. A surgical team at BWH is prepared at a moment’s notice to hop in a jet and travel up to 2,000 miles away when the call for a lung comes in.
James Trudeau, who had a lung transplant at BWH in 2004, got the call to come in for his transplant 12 times before the donor lung in question proved healthy enough for his transplant. It was his 13th trip to the hospital, and it was on Halloween. “No doubt it was worth it,” said Trudeau, who had been on oxygen for five years as a result of COPD, emphysema and bronchitis.
To support more patients, the team that cares for lung transplant patients is growing, too. A third nursing coordinator will join the team this year, and a full-time social worker and pharmacist were added in the past year. Social worker Stacey Salomon helps prepare patients emotionally for transplant and holds a monthly support group where pre- and post-transplant patients and families can meet and talk about what they are going through.
“The post transplant patients are happy to give back to those waiting for their transplant by sharing their stories and providing a sense of hope,” Salomon said.
Anne Fuhlbrigge, MD, and Camp added that the exceptional level of care and dedication of the nurses and team members enables patients to enjoy such wonderful outcomes.
“It’s rewarding to work with this group of patients,” said nurse practitioner Val Durney, who works with Kathleen Boyle, RN, to manage pre- and post-transplant care for patients. “Before the transplant, patients are extremely sick, but after, we see them breathe easily and enjoy life again.”
That’s especially true for Jehle, who has been swimming, biking, walking and spending time with friends and family, in addition to returning to work as a special education teacher. In March, she will run a 5K with Donate Life.
“I feel like a brand new person,” she said.
BWH has a rich history in organ transplantation. The world’s first successful transplant—a kidney to one twin from another—was performed at BWH in 1954 by Joseph Murray, MD, and his team. While the lung transplant program began in 1990, it already has celebrated two milestones: It performed both the first adult lung transplant in Massachusetts and the first double lung transplant in New England.