Undergoing lung transplant surgery is a highly complex and life-changing experience — affecting a patient's quality of life. That's what drives Matthew Morrell, MD, a pulmonologist and medical director of the Lung Transplant Program at University of Utah Health.
"What's very rewarding to me is seeing my patients' lives change," said Dr. Morrell. "To take them from sitting in a wheelchair on oxygen, to six months after transplant seeing them have that wonderful quality of life and be grateful, giving back to the community, wanting to help other transplant patients."
The U of U Health lung transplant program began more than 25 years ago, and is the only one in the Mountain West region serving adults with advanced lung disease. In the last five years alone, U of U Health cardiothoracic surgeons have performed 83 lung transplants.
What Is a Lung Transplant?
A lung transplant is the removal of a diseased or failing lung followed by the insertion of a healthy lung from a deceased organ donor. Lung transplant surgery can take anywhere from six to 10 hours to complete, says Dr. Morrell, but it's just the start of a treatment journey - one in which U of U Health doctors are partners alongside you. While lung transplantation is a major surgery that can have complications, it has the potential to improve your quality of life and overall survival.
Lung Transplant Criteria
"Usually, patients that are candidates for a lung transplant are those that are very limited from their lung disease," says Dr. Morrell. "They may require oxygen just to breathe and to carry on their activities of daily living — such as getting out of bed, showering, and getting dressed."
Criteria for potentially receiving a lung transplant include:
- Advanced lung disease, limiting breathing
- Commonly: Pulmonary Fibrosis, COPD/Emphysema, Cystic Fibrosis, and Pulmonary Hypertension
- Severe fatigue and shortness of breath with simple tasks
- Other treatment options have been exhausted
If you're a lung transplant candidate, you're put on a wait list. It may take a few days, a few months, or a year to find an adequate donor. This is where the importance of organ donation comes in, to give the gift of life after a healthy one ends. The number of people waiting for a lung transplant far exceeds the number of donated lungs available.
Lung Transplant Recovery - The Balancing Act
"A lung transplant isn't like driving a new car off the lot," says Dr. Morrell. "You're commonly in hospital recovering for about two weeks, adjusting to the new transplant medications, healing from the surgery, and starting physical therapy."
Outpatient recovery includes:
- Attending a monitored exercise program called pulmonary rehabilitation
- Regular treadmill exercise for muscle training
- Tracking of oxygen levels and blood pressure
- Breathing exercises to strengthen the lungs
- Testing to determine organ rejection status
- Medication to suppress the immune system
- Medication to prevent infections
You might be fully functioning in two or three months after surgery. Then, in ongoing treatment, U of U Health experts work to ensure a new lung is not rejected by balancing suppression of the immune system with treating infections that may arise when the immune system is suppressed.
"The lung transplant field is always evolving. There are different surgical techniques that are happening and different medications that come out to reduce risk and treat rejection," says Dr. Morrell. "With newer therapies, it's all very exciting."
Learn more about lung transplant.