Year later, lung transplant patient breathes easy

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 26, 2012 at 10:27 am •  Published: December 26, 2012
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Impossible, she said. She had turned up the volume on the ringers before bed.

"You're dreaming, honey," she told him. "Go back to sleep."

But he insisted. When she got up and looked at her phone, her heart sank. Three missed calls. All from UT Southwestern.

Transplants have a small window when they can be performed. They knew they would have three hours at most to get to the hospital once the call came. Beth Gideon, realizing that she had somehow turned the ringer off instead of up, felt full-blown panic.

Was it already too late?

She dialed back the transplant coordinator, who assured Beth Gideon that she had been calling for only 20 minutes.

"But how fast can you get here?" the coordinator asked.

Beth Gideon hurriedly dressed herself and her husband, a process that reminded the Gideons of what happens when a woman goes into labor and her husband prepares for the trip to the hospital.

In the Gideons' case, she scrambled from room to room while he focused on breathing.

Beth finally got her husband and his oxygen tanks into the car. She backed out of the driveway, but the car handled strangely. They heard a dashboard warning sensor activate.

A rear tire was low on air.

Beth got out of the car and stared. The tire was nearly flat but still round enough, the couple decided, to make it to the nearest gas station on White Settlement Road.

That would be faster than reloading Gideon and his heavy oxygen tanks into another car.

If the tire wouldn't hold air, they would call an ambulance.

At the station, she stuffed quarters into an air machine and filled the tire. Then they were back on the road. At that hour, the day after Christmas, the highway was mostly empty.

"My wife drove safely," Gideon said. "But very fast."

At St. Paul University Hospital, Beth Gideon climbed onto her husband's bed and curled against him while waiting for the transplant to begin.

The lungs were arriving on an airplane. The Gideons hadn't called many family members yet because they had been warned that false alarms happen.

They didn't want everyone to drive to Dallas and then learn that the lungs weren't a match after all.

But the doctors said the surgery was a go. And it was time to start.

The Gideons knew the risks. Three percent of double lung transplant patients die within 30 days.

"We said goodbye and it got a little teary," Beth Gideon said. "But mostly, it was a peaceful time.

"We felt it was going to be OK. We had great doctors, amazing support from our friends and our community. We felt their prayers."

The surgery took six to seven hours, said Dr. Fernando Torres, director of the lung transplant program at UT Southwestern. Surgeons connected the new lungs to the bronchi and two large blood vessels, the pulmonary vein and the pulmonary artery.

Doctors weakened Gideon's immune system so his body would accept the new organs, Torres said. That's why the patient cannot have an infection like the flu during a transplant. The infection would spread with the immune system so low.

UT Southwestern performed 50 lung transplants last year and has done 63 this year, Torres said.

Gideon's surgery went "very well," Torres said. Afterward, he was taken to the intensive care unit connected to a breathing machine. He had a tube in his throat and tubes draining fluid from each side of his chest.

Gideon does not remember exactly when he became alert in the hospital. But at some point, when he was off the ventilator, he remembers blinking to clear his blurry eyesight.

Then he realized that he could breathe.

It felt amazing, he said.

The holidays will bring not only the one-year anniversary of Gideon's transplant but also the end of another important period.

Transplant officials ask that organ recipients wait at least one year before contacting the donor's family.

Gideon said he believes that the wait is meant to give the family time to grieve, as well as to see how the transplant patient recovers. If the patient dies, that could add to the family's trauma, he said.

As of now, the Gideons know nothing of the person, just that he shared a blood type.

"I don't know if it was a young person or a little older," he said. "I don't know where they lived."

But he knows that the holiday gift he received last year was almost certainly the result of a heartbreaking Christmas for another family.

So he has asked transplant officials to find out whether the family members will accept correspondence from him.

If they will, he is not certain exactly what he will write. But he said the letter will try to convey what his family feels this holiday season:

Gratitude.