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University Hospital celebrates ‘big milestone’: 500th lung transplant
June 20, 2014

By Katherine Schaeffer, San Antonio Express-News

Five months ago, Earl Tomlin couldn't walk across his living room without his oxygen tank in tow. The retired Southwest Airlines pilot had been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis two years earlier, and the scarring of the lung tissue had progressed quickly.

"The last couple of weeks before the actual transplant. . . I was unable to go anywhere without an oxygen bottle or my machine at home," Tomlin, 69, said. "And that's when they said, ‘You're going to be in a wheelchair shortly.' "

On May 4, he underwent a successful lung transplant at University Transplant Center, marking its 500th successful such procedure. The hospital celebrated Thursday.

The Transplant Center, a partnership between University Health System and the UT Health Science Center, has been one of the leading innovators in its field since launching the program in 1987, said Dr. Daniel DeArmond, the surgeon who led Tomlin's transplant team.

"There aren't a lot of programs that can point to 500 lung transplants," DeArmond said. "To do 500 of any operation is actually kind of a big milestone. It says that you have a program that's really committed to doing things."

Lungs transplants tend to be a challenge for surgeons, not because of the procedure itself - which is fairly straightforward - but because of the care required after surgery, DeArmond said. Doctors carefully monitor the patient's immunosuppression to prevent organ rejection or infection.

The Center completes 30 to 35 lung transplants each year, a number limited by donor availability, DeArmond said. Most lung donors are brain-dead patients sustained by breathing machines, and the window to donate is limited because of the chance of the lungs contracting pneumonia.

"Lung transplant programs are actually fairly uncommon in the country," he said. "Mainly because the number of donors that come up for lung transplant is much smaller than the number of donors that come up for a kidney."

After his transplant, the months he spent tethered to an oxygen tank are a distant memory, Tomlin said. He's walking, driving and looking forward to playing golf as soon as he's completely healed. Thanks to the care and support he received from his team of doctors, Tomlin recovered quickly, returning home from the hospital after an eight-day stretch.

"Attitude plays a big, important part," Tomlin said. "And these people help your attitude, not in a false sort of way, just the confidence that they give you."


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