Determination and inspiration led to the donation of new lungs for a COVID patient
On their wedding day 34 years ago, when Steve and Lynne Harrison swore to be by each other’s side in sickness and health, neither could have imagined the journey to come.
Steve, 55, said he was “healthy as a horse” and working as a construction foreman when he contracted the Delta variant of COVID-19 in September 2021. Unvaccinated, early symptoms Steve’s flu-like illnesses quickly snowballed, prompting him to leave his home. in Dayton, Tennessee, and spend nearly two months in the intensive care unit of a nearby hospital.
His doctor thought it was best to use a ventilator, but Steve resisted – even though the doctor told Lynne that without a ventilator, Steve’s chance of survival was only 30%.
“It was a fight,” Steve said. “But if something happened, I wanted to be able to talk to my kids.” Instead of a ventilator, Steve opted to lie on his stomach and wear a high-flow oxygen mask. “The mask took my nose to the bone.”
After a stint in a physical rehabilitation center, Steve returned home, but for only five days. He developed COVID-related acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS, and ended up in the emergency room. “They thought I was going to die,” Steve said.
In fact, the palliative care team worked with Lynne and the couple’s three adult children to arrange end-of-life care.
“Steve didn’t want to die in a hospital on a machine,” Lynne said. “He was going to go home no matter what it looked like.”
While the family was meeting with the palliative care team, Steve learned that he had been referred to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Comprehensive Transplant Institute (CTI) for a double lung transplant. On November 13, 2021, the CTI dispatched an air ambulance to transport Steve to UAB.
“It happened so fast that I felt like I was hit by a tornado,” Steve recalls.
Dr Charles Hoopeshis surgeon and CTI Surgical Director for the thoracic transplant, noted that Steve’s situation — known as a “salvage transplant” — comes with unique challenges.
“A transplant is more complicated when a patient doesn’t have a history of chronic disease, doesn’t have a long-term relationship with the medical team, and doesn’t expect it,” Hoopes said. “Psychologically, it’s a challenge.”
Lynne recognized this difficulty.
“Most people who receive organs are sick and they are able to mentally adjust to the fact that they are sick,” she said. “We went from sickness to death very quickly. It’s an adjustment.
The family faced another hurdle in December 2021, when they were told donor lungs were available, but the transplant did not take place.
“The good people at UAB had become our family and everyone was disappointed, but I knew the good Lord had kept me there for a reason,” Steve said.
The couple spent Christmas and New Years at UAB CTI, and Steve worked hard to be in the best shape possible for his transplant.
“I walked three miles a day in intensive care – 30 laps in the morning and 30 in the evening,” he said.
Hoopes said Steve’s efforts have positioned him for a successful transplant.
“A transplanted heart beats on its own, but the lungs require the patient to participate by breathing,” he said. “Physiotherapy is essential before the operation.”
A birthday present
The donation of new lungs arrived on January 30, 2022.
“They kept me asleep the first day but woke me up on February 1, which is my birthday,” Steve said. “I was able to stand on my own and walk 1,600 feet.”
Hoopes noted that although Steve struggled during his recovery, his motivation to succeed was never in doubt.
“He walked and fought to stay away from a fan,” he said. “The brain interprets the difficulty in breathing as a life-threatening situation, but Steve overcame it.”
When Lynne worked for the county clerk’s office issuing driver’s licenses, she encouraged residents to become organ donors. Over the past year, the couple have had the unexpected opportunity to witness the transplant from the perspective of both donor and recipient.
“Last year our daughter-in-law’s brother was killed by lightning and was an organ donor,” Lynne said. “This year Steve received a double lung transplant.”
Steve looks forward to the day when he can return to work, fish and hunt; but he doesn’t take his new lungs for granted.
“The reason I got back into shape was because of the donor sacrifice,” he said. “I prayed for the donor and his family, and I hope they realize that the sacrifice of their loved one saved my entire family.”
Lynne documents their day-to-day journey and will one day read it to Steve.
“There were terrible nights and long days; but marriage is for better or for worse, isn’t it? »
To learn more about registering as an organ donor, visit The Legacy of Hope.
This story originally appeared on the UAB News Website.