When Lala Juarez started experiencing seemingly unrelated health issues, she didn't think it was anything serious.
"I started gaining weight, would get tired really quickly, and had a dry cough," Juarez said. "It was like being out of shape but different."
Juarez first noticed symptoms in 2013 after returning home to Utah from a six-month stay with a cousin in North Carolina. While the symptoms were frustrating, Juarez certainly didn't think they were life-threatening—or that they had anything to do with her lungs.
In 2014, Juarez was given steroids and various cough syrups to help manage her persistent dry cough. She was diagnosed with acid reflux, sleep apnea, and pertussis (whooping cough).
"After I would shower, I had to lay on my bed for a couple of hours to regain my energy before I could even think about getting dressed," Juarez said.
During a visit to the emergency room, a doctor encouraged Juarez to see a cardiologist. Juarez followed that advice and was prescribed water pills and started sleeping with oxygen. While it helped her symptoms, there was still no diagnosis.
In December 2015, more than two years after symptom onset, Juarez met with a pulmonologist who was able to give her an answer. At 24 years old, Juarez was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension (IPAH).
IPAH is a form of pulmonary hypertension, or high blood pressure in the lungs. This increased pressure can cause inflammation and obstruct the small arteries that connect to the lungs.
"I felt like I was breathing through a straw on a regular basis," Juarez said. "With exertion, it felt like trying to breathe through coffee straws."
Although IPAH is a chronic condition, medications can help slow down the damage it causes to the lungs. A double lung transplant is also an option for some patients.
After her diagnosis, Juarez was prescribed three different specialty oral medications to help stabilize her symptoms and prevent them from worsening.
"My doctor told me I needed to be sick enough to need a lung transplant but healthy enough to recover from the surgery," Juarez said.
Juarez had her first lung transplant consultation in 2017 and was told she was too healthy for a transplant. She continued her oral medications, along with IV therapy.
On March 1, 2021, Juarez had her second lung transplant consultation.
"I thought I was going to hear 'too healthy' again," Juarez said. "I wanted to hold off for a few more years but was told it was time. I had all my testing and was ready for the transplant when I got the call three months later."
Ten years after her symptoms began, at the age of 30, Juarez received a double lung transplant at University of Utah Hospital.
"The surgeons took great care of me, and I am incredibly thankful," Juarez said. "I wouldn't be where I am today without them."
When Juarez was first told she was ready for a lung transplant, she couldn't believe it.
"At the time, I had wholeheartedly accepted and made peace with living with PAH, the oral medications, and the IV treatments," Juarez said. "I'm currently processing that that is no longer the case. I have an independence and freedom for myself that I didn't see possible."
Although Juarez is officially past the year mark, she is still recovering.
"I am shocked at the things I can do daily that I would have never saw myself doing in early June of last year," Juarez said. "It has definitely improved my daily tasks tremendously already. I didn't realize—or maybe I didn't want to believe—just how bad I was. It's becoming clearer every day with the things I am able to do again. Every day is a surprise."
Juarez says she can no longer tell when the weather is going to change. She can wear heels without struggling to breathe. She can do seemingly simple things like make cookies without having to prepare to be exhausted for the next two days. Another milestone was walking through the airport without having to stop and rest.
"Prior to the transplant, the last time I was in an airport was in 2018," Juarez said. "I had to do frequent stops from the front doors to the terminal. I probably took a good 50 stops to catch my breath and let my heart rate go down. In February of this year, I went into the newly renovated airport here in Salt Lake City and I can now just zip through it."
In the 25 years since the inception of University of Utah Health's lung transplant program, many patients like Juarez have been given a second chance at life. Started in 1996, the program remains the only one of its kind in the entire region, helping nearly 300 patients receive a new lung (or two). Although the program may be smaller in size compared to others across the nation, it is mighty in its reach and life-saving mission.