Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Inside Story of a Double-Lung Transplant

In early 2000, doctors diagnosed Mary Plum, then 61, with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis—meaning that its origin was unknown. What Mary, a nonsmoker, did know was that 50 percent of people receiving that diagnosis die within three years.

Thus began a journey that ultimately would take Mary, a retired forensic accountant, to Shands at the University of Florida for a rare double-lung transplant. Mary and husband Bill—twice chairman of the Bethesda Hospital Foundation and a founding member of both the Drug Abuse Foundation in Delray Beach and The Haven in Boca—share excerpts of that journey in the Our Town section of May/June issue of Boca Raton. Here is the complete transcript of that story.

Mary: My whole life I have worked at looking good. It’s like Billy Crystal used to say: It’s better to look good than feel good. I don’t understand young people walking around like slobs. How long can it take to look presentable? Have a little pride!

Bill: With Mary, everything is black or white. A shovel, to her, isn’t an “agricultural tool.” I knew she had the perseverance and strength of mind to whip this.

Mary: The doctors put me on Prednisone, which kept me alive for the next eight years. But early on, they told me I had to be on oxygen. It was in a container that I could throw over my shoulder. I was embarrassed. It took me a few months to get over it, but I’m not one to sit home. Finally, I walked into the front door of our club, held my head up and said, “Here I am.” That’s what you have to do. You have to face life head on. If you do, it’s amazing what you can accomplish.

Mary: Vera Bradley makes these elegant looking backpacks. I bought every color they had, and I would hook the oxygen tank into the Vera Bradley. I could match all my outfits.

Bill: When we’d go dancing, I’d sometimes have to hold the bag because she’d turn so fast on the dance floor and that tank would swing. That thing was dangerous.

Mary: I found a pulmonologist at Shands. In 2009, she told me that I needed the transplant to stay alive. I was a little overweight at the time, so they asked me to lose 20 pounds.

Bill: The testing and regimen they put her through was severe. She had to build up her leg strength, for example, because following a transplant the rejection drugs destroy your muscles. She was fit and ready.

Mary: I lived with a terminal condition for nearly 10 years. So I’d already faced death. To worry about the transplant wouldn’t have been productive. If I had to check out, I’d check out. You know what was tough? Losing 20 pounds in two months.

Mary: The operation took place Sept. 24, 2009. It lasted seven hours. While I was being prepped, the surgeon was at another hospital in Florida to harvest the lungs. He put them in a cooler, packed it with dry ice, jumped in a helicopter and flew back to Gainesville. … They cut me from under the armpit, down under both breasts and back up the armpit. They break the sternum and lift it up like a breadbox. Then they attach the new lungs, pop the sternum back down and adhere it with super glue.

Bill: It was surgical glue. People are going to think that your chest is held in place by Elmer’s Glue.

Mary: They took me off supplemental oxygen after three days. Those lungs had to go to work. … After 10 days, my oxygen levels weren’t where they were supposed to be. The night nurse told me I was having an anxiety attack. I said, ‘Young lady, I don’t have anxiety attacks. That’s not in my makeup.’ … Turns out I was having a rejection episode, my only one.

Bill: When you have one rejection, chances are high you will have another. Mary hasn’t. She hasn’t missed a dose of any rejection medication. She’s followed the book like a trooper.

Mary: I’ve never been terribly tolerant. I’m a perfectionist. But I find myself enjoying life more—and because of that, I’m kinder to other people than I ever used to be. I think I’m a better person.

Mary: I don’t know who the donor was. I’ve written a letter trying to find out. I’d love to know.

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