Heart, lung transplant recipients and families gather to celebrate gift of life

Double lung-kidney transplant recipient Sean Keoni Craig with his surgeon, Dr. Abbas Ardehali.

Sean Keoni Craig never could have imagined he would be a guest at the UCLA Heart and Lung Transplant holiday party held in early December.

After all, it was only in September that the Hawaii resident traveled to California to celebrate his 52nd birthday at Disneyland. Before he made it to the amusement park, however, he found himself in the hospital, fighting for his life.

Although Craig was  diagnosed in 2015 with pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive disease with no cure that causes scarring of the lungs, his symptoms remained mild and he was working as a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant. During the vacation in California, however, his oxygen levels dropped alarmingly low and he was rushed to a nearby hospital. His condition deteriorated over several days and he even flat-lined twice.

Craig was put on a life-support system and transferred by ambulance to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. He was placed on the waiting list for an unusual double lung and kidney transplant. An organ donor became available within a few weeks and he underwent a successful surgery on Oct. 26.

“During the entire process, everything aligned for me,” said Craig. “The first time I took a deep breath after my transplant, it was such a surreal feeling.”

Craig was among more than 130 transplant recipients who attended the annual holiday party with their families. Together with members of the UCLA transplant team, about 450 people filled the Palisades Ballroom at UCLA Carnesale Commons. The dinner included speeches by patients, physicians, One Legacy—an organ procurement organization, donor families and musical performers. Guests came from as far away as San Antonio. Some patients had received donor organs as recently as two weeks earlier, while other had transplants more than 30 years ago.

“We hold this party to bring together our patients and transplant team and celebrate everything that has been accomplished over the past year,” said Dr. Abbas Ardehali, surgical director of the UCLA Heart and Lung Transplant program. “It’s truly a heartwarming evening that showcases how organ transplantation saves lives.”

Kathlyn Chassey, of San Antonio, Texas. Photo credit: Amanda Griswold

Kathlyn Chassey, 26, who has cystic fibrosis and underwent a double lung transplant in 2016, said she was inspired to meet some people living for decades with their donated organs.

“There’s hope that I can live to be an old grandma sitting on the porch!” said Chassey. “That’s one of my dreams--getting old.”

A family friend of Chassey’s, who works for NASA, helped arrange to have the names of the UCLA team included on a microchip that was placed onboard NASA's InSight Mars lander, which recently touched down on the red planet after a six-month, 300-million-mile journey from Earth, Ardehali told the guests. It was the friend’s way of giving thanks to all of the people who helped the young woman survive.

UCLA pulmonologist Dr. Joseph Lynch discussed important decision that families of donors make in the face of tragedy. “It’s a blessing when families that can't have their loved one back come together and decide that by donating their organs, other people can share in life,” said Lynch.

Wayne Darrington, 56, who underwent UCLA’s first combination heart-double lung-kidney transplant in August, paid tribute to his anonymous donor.

“My family was always mindful to pray for the family that would suffer the loss of life so that I could continue with mine,” said Darrington, who was hospitalized for three months before his donor was found. “In their honor, I vowed to be a good steward of the organs I was blessed to receive.”

The UCLA Health Heart and Lung Transplant program is one of the largest in the United States and ranks among the best in terms of patient survival rates and outcomes of the transplanted organ, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients. UCLA began performing heart transplants in 1985 and lung transplants in 1988. The transplant program has pioneered numerous advances in transplant research, surgical technique, organ procurement and patient care.



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