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Institute at Phoenix hospital region’s busiest for lung transplants

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Two years after her lung transplant at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, which has the busiest lung transplant program west of Houston, Patricia Brown is able to play tennis, exercise and run with her 2-year-old granddaughter.

“I can chase her,” she said. “Before my transplant, someone could put her in my arms – she was just a baby – but I didn’t even have the strength to really hold her.”

Brown, who used to smoke and was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), said she was listed for about 36 hours before she received a call to schedule her single-lung transplant.

In 2014, 73 lung transplants were performed by surgeons at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s John and Doris Norton Thoracic Institute. The number of lung transplants place the facility’s lung transplant program as the fifth-busiest in the nation, according to the health provider.

Dr. Rajat Walia, pulmonologist and medical director of the lung transplant program, said pulmonary and cystic fibrosis, emphysema and COPD are some of the most common conditions that cause patients to need transplants.

He said that there is a shortage of organ donors, but he said the institute is making headway in technology called TransMedics Organ Care System, which helps preserve and lengthen donated organs’ lives until they are transplanted.

“If those studies look successful, then we will be able to utilize organs for a lot more donors and, hopefully, overcome the shortage of donor organs,” he said.

Walia said it’s important to be your own advocate and educator on transplants of lungs and other organs, especially when an individual has doubts after being turned down for a transplant.

“Sometimes if you’re turned down at one center, it does not mean another center will not accept you,” he said.

Jacqueline Keidel, media relations coordinator of the Donor Network of Arizona, said the organization urges people to register as donors because they can have an impact on others.

“I’m always touched by the generosity and the selflessness of our donor families, choosing to give the gift of life and to be selfless in basically what’s their worst moment in losing a loved one,” she said. “I’m always inspired to see what our transplant recipients do.”

She said the network connects donors and their family members with hospitals like Dignity Health’s St. Joseph’s.

“So (you’re) seeing individuals who go from fighting for air, and barely being able to walk down the block to running marathons or having children,” she said.

As of April 2, seven out of 2,417 people awaiting organ, eye and tissue transplants in Arizona are on a waitlist for lungs, according to the Organ Procurement Transplantation Network.

Brown said she finds the whole lung transplant process unbelievable, and she encourages people to register as donors if they can so those like her can have a second chance at life.

“Life is beautiful,” she said. “You don’t know it till you almost lose it and get it back.”

Lung transplants and smoking in Arizona | Create infographics