News Release: People

Nov. 21,  2010

Holidays and Family Celebrations Come Just in Time for Milestone Lung Transplant Patient

300th Emory lung transplant patient has much to celebrate - and a story of hope for others

News Article ImageFor 40-year-old Jo Ellen Kimball, years of facing a serious lung disease were long but in September 2010 she received a hoped-for transplant.

She refers to both moments in her life as “the call.”

When “the call” finally came for Jo Ellen Kimball and her family, oddly, the ‘Emory Healthcare’ display on the caller ID failed to elicit the same “this is it” moment that had for months presented breathless anticipation with each ring.

This time, however, the 40 year-old Covington elementary schoolteacher got the message she had been waiting for: a nurse in the Emory Transplant Center was on the other end of the line informing her that there was a double lung donor match located which would soon save Kimball’s life - and it was time to pack the bags and head to the hospital.

While that telephone call spurred a flood of different emotions – from relief and joy – to hope and fear - another event six years earlier, which she also identifies as “the call” would forever change her life – leading to this moment.

At the age of 34, Kimball, who was a young, healthy, active mother of two and elementary schoolteacher, had returned in 2004 from a family vacation with a nagging cough that would not subside. When numerous visits to her physician, including over-the-counter medications and prescription antibiotics, and even a late-night trip to the emergency room of her local hospital were unable to resolve her condition, she feared something was seriously wrong.

“I knew there was something wrong, but doctors were unable to really figure out what it was. Finally when I developed pneumonia, we knew it was more serious. We didn’t know how serious, though, until I got ‘the call.’”

Her cell phone rang while Kimball was eating dinner in a restaurant with her family one evening. On the other end was a physician breaking news to Jo-Ellen that her fears of something seriously wrong were confirmed by a biopsy procedure. She was diagnosed with Bronchiolitis Obliterans Organizing Pneumonia (BOOP), which is a rare inflammatory lung condition of the small airways (bronchioles) and nearby lung tissue. Over time, the disease destroys the bronchioles and chokes off the airway.

“I will never forget that restaurant or that telephone call. It was a long time before I ate in that restaurant again,” says Kimball. “It was certainly a shock, but I also knew whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be good. But the doctor told me I would need to be on oxygen immediately, and do everything I could to buy time and save as much of my lungs for as long as possible. I cried and I was upset. I had a 7-and 10-year old at the time, and I immediately wondered how I would care for them, and if I would even live to see them grow up. We knew we had a challenge.”

Over the next six years, Jo-Ellen and her husband, Scott, were always honest with both kids about their mom’s condition, her need to wear an oxygen mask, the limitations her condition placed on her, and the serious nature of her disease. After a few years, when her condition weakened because of diminished lung capacity, she quit her job as a schoolteacher to save energy and avoid the potential for infection.

Eventually, despair would lead to hope when Kimball was referred to The Emory Transplant Center, where she was listed on the lung transplant waiting list in January 2010, and would remain for the next eight months. And in late September, once again it was a call - “the call” - that would turn the Kimballs’ lives around.

“For eight months, every time the phone would ring, or show Emory Healthcare, anyone of us who would answer would have this anticipation like ‘this is it.’ For whatever reason, that day I got the call, saw the caller ID, and just figured they were calling me for an appointment in the clinic. Of course, I was totally shocked when the nurse gave me the news and told me to start heading for the hospital. That was the best call I had ever received.”

Kimball actually would become somewhat of a hospital celebrity when she became Emory Healthcare’s 300th lung transplant patient since the program’s creation more than 17 years ago in 1993.

The fact that Kimball can go back to a normal life, possibly even return to her fourth-grade teaching position if she so wishes, is reason enough to celebrate. She's fought hard to get this far, to overcome the lung-crushing symptoms of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). "Because it causes extensive scar tissue, IPF turns the lungs to stone," says her doctor, Clinton Lawrence, MD, McKelvey Chair in Lung Transplantation Medicine. "Imagine trying to breathe through lava rock every day of your life. And the five-year survival rate is less than 20 percent. Lung transplantation is the only treatment currently available for this insidious disease."

Emory’s lung transplant program also has come far to reach this 300th milestone. It ranked 11th out of 65 transplant centers for volume according to United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), and performed 35 lung transplants - its most ever and a 300 percent increase over the number it transplanted 10 years ago. In fact, Emory performed nearly 20 lung transplants in just the first six months of this year.

“If anything, this achievement is a team endeavor—and Clint deserves a lot of the credit,” says Seth Force, MD, Kimball's surgeon and surgical director of the Emory lung transplant program. “When I came on board to expand the program in 2003, Emory Healthcare and the Departments of Medicine and Surgery put the resources in place to grow the lung transplant program. They added staff in the pre- and post-transplant areas and recruited two new dedicated thoracic surgeons, Drs. Allan Pickens and Felix Fernandez, last year. It's been a huge effort."

Fundamental to the program's level of success, Force says, were the generous donations of the many donor families who make transplantation possible. Its success also was made possible by the gifts totaling $24 million since 2001 from the late serial entrepreneur Andrew McKelvey to establish and expand a namesake center at Emory. McKelvey, who died in 2008 from pancreatic cancer, was Dr. Lawrence's friend and patient.

As Kimball celebrates with other lung transplant recipients during a special event held at Emory University Hospital, she looks forward to an even more thankful Thanksgiving, as well as a holiday season filled with special celebrations.

“Not only do we have the very best of reasons to be thankful during this Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday season, but our wedding anniversary is in December, my youngest son’s birthday is in December, and my birthday is in December,” says Kimball.

“This is truly an incredible feeling to be well again, and to be able to celebrate these joyous events with my family. But we also will think about and celebrate the life of the person who graciously donated his or her lungs to me. It is an incredible responsibility I will carry with me to care, not only for myself, but this tremendous gift of life I have been given by someone I will never know. I can never repay that gift, but I can honor it every day I am alive.”

Originally posted on Nov. 9, 2010

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