For patients with end-stage chronic lung disease, every breath is tiresome and difficult. When the disease is no longer responsive to medical therapies, a lung transplant is a possibility for patients under the age of 70. This is the tale of two double lung transplants and one enduring tribute.
Frank Sands and Kim Tsamoutales met in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a place where both enjoy summer homes and the outdoors. Kim led an active lifestyle that included hiking and competitive tennis after having a double lung transplant at UNC Medical Center. Frank admired her positive attitude as she managed post-transplant restrictions. He had been physically active, with a fitness coach and structured workouts, until his health declined.
Then, a little more than a year ago Frank faced a grim prognosis. His lungs were failing and nothing more could be done to treat his chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis. He had a portable oxygen machine but daily activities like walking, talking and eating were getting difficult. A conversation with Kim was the beginning of a journey that would reclaim his health.
“When Mr. Sands opened up about his health issues, my husband and I told him about the renowned physicians, surgeons and staff at the UNC Lung Transplant Program, and we highly recommended he go there,” said Kim Tsamoutales. “I shared with him how the team at UNC had saved my life and has been instrumental in my health care in the years since my transplant.”
Kim’s double-lung transplant
Diagnosed at age 5, Kim had been born with cystic fibrosis. By the time she reached her 30s, she was developing frequent lung infections, and it wasn’t long before oxygen had become her constant companion. Living in central Florida, a second opinion led her to UNC pulmonologist Dr. James Yankaskas.
“From the start, I was impressed with the program’s history and pioneering research as one of the best adult cystic fibrosis care centers and lung transplant programs in the world. After multiple tests, Dr. Yankaskas, who recently retired, recommended I go on the waiting list for a transplant.”
Back at home Kim waited. It was the middle of hurricane season. A daily routine of home health care, oxygen, nebulizers and chest physical therapy attempted to keep her airway cleared. But disabled and suffering, her oxygen levels were dropping. To make matters worse, Hurricane Jeanne was headed to central Florida. On September 25, 2004, she had to evacuate.
“I was fortunate to be able to leave on the last flight out of the Melbourne Airport,” said Kim. “A friend flew me and my husband to Raleigh, and we went straight to the emergency room in Chapel Hill.
At UNC Medical Center, Kim was soon intubated as her kidneys began to shut down. When she woke up a week later, she learned she was breathing on her own. On October 10th, her transplant had taken place.
Frank’s double-lung transplant
Frank went to UNC for an extensive series of tests. He was evaluated by Dr. Jason Lobo, the medical director of pulmonary transplant and interstitial lung disease, who considered Frank’s physiological age. Lobo and Dr. Raymond Coakley, along with the transplant surgical team that included Dr. Benjamin Haithcock, surgical director of the UNC Lung Transplant Program and Dr. Jason Long, co-director of the UNC Lung Cancer Screening Clinic, integrated Sand’s care.
“As a transplant program we have been pushing to provide care to older patients who fit the criteria for a good transplant candidate,” said Haithcock. “With Mr. Sands, there was no compelling reason why he was not a good fit for the surgery; he was very strong, active, vibrant and fit, and we felt he was an excellent candidate for a double lung transplant.”
“UNC has an enlightened view about how they consider transplant candidates,” said Frank. “I’m grateful they accepted me.”
Back at home in McLean, Virginia, Frank waited. He had to be at UNC Medical Center within four hours of getting a phone call. On July 7, 2017, Frank Sands got the phone call. He not only became the oldest patient at UNC to have a double-lung transplant, he became the oldest patient in the world.
The Kimberly H. Tsamoutales Professorship
As Frank continues to recover, the first year after his transplant is recognized as the most challenging, and he credits Kim Tsamoutales for helping him reclaim his life. “Kim is delightful. She demonstrates all that this experience should be about and she abides by the restrictions.”
To support the future of UNC’s Lung Transplant Program and to show his gratitude for Dr. Lobo, Dr. Raymond Coakley, and the many others who are part of his ongoing care, Frank Sands made a financial gift in Kim’s name that established a new professorship.
“When Frank called, I was incredibly moved by his generosity,” said Kim. “He said he wanted to make a gift to the transplant program in my name, and he was calling to ask my permission. I’m honored that the professorship will bear my name, and grateful to him and his family for this lasting tribute to an incredible transplant team.”
According to pulmonary division chief Dr. Shannon Carson, the gift will allow the retention of the best clinicians and the recruitment of the brightest young talent in the field. It also acknowledges the efforts of a large team of dedicated physicians, nurses and nurse practitioners, pharmacists, social workers, and administrative staff who support patients and their families during the difficult path leading up to transplant and the recovery afterwards.
“We are extremely thankful to Mr. Sands and his family for this gift,” said Dr. Carson. “It will have lasting benefits for patients with chronic lung disease and for the families who depend on them. Additionally, funds will support basic and clinical research in lung transplantation and for diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis that create the need for lung transplantation. It will be the combination of technical advances and the continued dedication of clinicians that will make lung transplantation even more successful and more widely available in the future.”
The UNC Lung Transplant program has served the people of the state of North Carolina for nearly three decades, providing life-saving care for patients with end stage chronic lung disease. The program provides a multi-disciplinary team approach that includes pulmonary, surgical, pharmacy, psychology, nursing care, and critical care that work cohesively throughout the entire process to provide the best possible care to every patient in the program. Each of the team members is engaged in the patient’s care before a transplant, during a transplant, and after a transplant; seeing the patient through the entire process.