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Entire Family Breathes Easier Following Transplant
Thirty-eight-year-old Melissa Iaconetti defied everything you hear about cystic fibrosis. Unlike many young people with the lung disease, she played the drums and the cymbals in the school band, tap danced, played folk guitar in church and even softball as a young adult. “She kept in good health and led a pretty normal life,” says her mother, Barbara Merbler.
It wasn’t until five years ago that she started developing recurrent lung infections, a complication that frequently affects young patients with cystic fibrosis. At age 32, Melissa found herself coming down with more colds and failing to recuperate fully. Since then, her lung functions continued to deteriorate, and three years ago, she began relying on oxygen to breathe.
In June, almost three years after being placed on a lung transplantation list, Melissa found herself lying in a bed at Hartford Hospital for the entire month. That’s when her father, Ernie Merbler, and husband, Lou Iaconetti—both of whom have the same blood type as Melissa—each decided to give Melissa a portion of their lungs.
They recently became the donors for BWH’s first-ever, living related lung transplant. The process started many months before with thorough physical and psychological evaluations of all three by a medical transplant team led by pulmonologist John Reilly, MD.
“We knew we were running out of time,” said Lou, who married Melissa three years ago. “We had been looking at it as an alternative, but we knew Melissa was not at the top of the transplant list and we had to do something.”
On July 7, Melissa, her husband and her father were placed in three adjacent operating rooms. They underwent three different surgical procedures, with a right lower lobe taken from Lou and the left lower lobe from Ernie. Ultimately, though, the six-hour surgery would leave each of them breathing easier – most importantly Melissa.
“The success of the operations is due to the monumental effort by a large number of hospital personnel who prepared diligently and executed this feat flawlessly,” said Raphael Bueno, MD, the thoracic surgeon who led the transplant team of some 50 caregivers, including thoracic surgeons, pulmonologists, anesthesiologists, nurses, intensivists, pump techs, physician assistants and other staff. “The logistics and care that was taken with this endeavor is remarkable.”
Melissa’s mother, however, is grateful to BWH for more than the expertise. While much of her family underwent the surgery, Barbara was left to wait.
“It certainly was very emotional, but without the support people—the doctors, the nurses—I don’t know what I would have done,” she said. “Brigham and Women’s really provided wonderful support for all of us.”
Looking at his daughter on September 17, the day after she was discharged from BWH, Ernie Merbler said there was never a question about whether he would donate a portion of his lung. “She’s worth both my lungs,” he said.