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Grateful for every breath: UNC patient is nation’s longest lung transplant survivor

Howell Graham, who received a lung transplant at UNC Hospitals, is now the longest-surviving lung transplant patient in the United States. He talks about his transplant, the first for a cystic fibrosis patient at UNC, and his appreciation for the better life he received with his new lungs. Thomas M. Egan, M.D., M.Sc., was Graham’s transplant surgeon.

Feb. 26, 2017

Howell Graham
Howell Graham (from UNC Health Care video)

In 1990, Howell Graham was the first cystic fibrosis patient to receive a lung transplant at UNC Hospitals.

At that time, Graham was 28. His cystic fibrosis had progressed to the point that it was difficult to walk across a room. He didn’t think he could go on living that way.

Thomas Egan, MD
Thomas Egan, M.D., M.Sc., in his lab. (Photo by Chuck Burton, Associated Press)

His surgeon, Thomas Egan, MD, MSc, professor of surgery in the UNC Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, had come to UNC in 1989 to start its lung transplant program. Egan is an internationally known researcher on lung transplantation.

At the time of Graham’s surgery, cystic fibrosis patients were not considered good candidates for lung transplant. But a new technique for performing a double lung transplant had been developed. Egan knew Graham was a good candidate.

All these years later, Graham, of Wilmington, still vividly remembers the moment he heard that a set of donor lungs might be available.

“Dr. Egan told me he was flying out to look at some lungs and I had all of these questions for him like ‘What if your plane is delayed?’ or ‘What if there’s a traffic jam?’”

“He looked at me and said ‘Howell, it’s like Greyhound, leave the driving to us.’”

Since receiving his lung transplant, Graham has built a successful career in a real estate appraisal firm. He met and married his wife. They bought their first home. He’s also had a lot of fun on his boat at Wrightsville Beach. He is now the longest-surviving lung transplant patient in the United States, and one of the longest survivors in the world.

Meanwhile, the UNC Lung Transplant Program, which led the way for lung transplants for cystic fibrosis patients, became one of the largest and most successful CF lung transplant programs in the world.

Not a day goes by that Graham isn’t thankful for the gift he received in 1990. And he’s made it his mission to spread the word about the importance of organ donation. He knows he likely wouldn’t be here without it.

“This portion of my life has been the best by far,” he said.