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New lungs offer a 'second chance'

Double-lung transplant survivor Jamie Hammer with her husband, Chris, and stepdaughter, Jillian.

CF patient gets a lifesaving lung transplant from U’s award-winning program

For Jamie Hammer, 31, cystic fibrosis (CF) has always been a major part of her daily life. Diagnosed when she was 5 months old, Jamie has always lived with daily chest-pounding therapies, 50-pills-a-day regimens, daily IV treatments, and a host of related complications.

But this past winter, all that changed—for the better.

In December, Jamie received a lifesaving double-lung transplant at the University of Minnesota. The most remarkable part of having new lungs, she says, is spending less time on therapies and more time with her husband, Chris Hammer, and stepdaughter, Jillian. “Also, it’s unbelievable just waking up and breathing and feeling good,” she adds.

Shortly after Jamie’s transplant, the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview was recognized by HealthGrades, an independent rating organization, for its top outcomes in lung transplantation. The University was one of only three centers awarded the HealthGrades Lung Transplant Excellence Award.

Living with CF

CF is a hereditary disease that affects the body’s movement of salt and water in the lining of internal organs. The disease causes blocked airways, leads to repeated lung infections, inflammation, and progressive scarring, and makes it difficult to absorb food from the intestines.

Just a few decades ago, CF patients were not expected to live to age 10. But patients treated at the University live a decade longer than the national average, now 37.

University physician Warren Warwick, M.D., a CF research pioneer and founder of the University’s Cystic Fibrosis Center, diagnosed Jamie’s CF in 1980. Warwick invented the first CF chest compression vest now used around the world to help clear the lungs and extend the lives of people with CF. Jamie began using the vest at age 10.

As Jamie grew into adulthood, she continued to receive care at the University. When she developed diabetes, she again turned to the University for treatment. “We’re so fortunate to have everything right here,” she says.

Jamie, who had very few CF-related complications as a child and adolescent, attended college at St. Cloud State University, graduated with a degree in recreation administration, and became a certified recreational therapist. She married Chris five years ago and worked as the director of therapeutic recreation at Augustana Chapel View Care Center.

But in October 2010, what Jamie thought was an average cold turned into something more serious, and she was admitted to the hospital. Her lung function dramatically declined in the following weeks, and doctors determined that she needed a lung transplant.

A lifesaving transplant

During Jamie’s long hospital stay, her friends and family—including her husband and stepdaughter, Chris and Jillian, her parents, Connie and Jim Haubenschild, and Jamie’s three sisters—were a constant presence.

Jamie was added to the lung transplant waiting list right after Thanksgiving. How soon a patient receives a donor organ depends on a number of criteria, says Marshall Hertz, M.D., one of Jamie’s doctors and director of the University’s lung transplant program and the Center for Lung Science and Health.

“We are required to try to transplant the sickest person first,” he explains, adding that each patient evaluation takes into account the urgency of the need and probability of survival after transplantation.

Hertz says that Jamie’s condition became precarious. “Every couple of days, you could see a few steps backward.”

By December, Jamie needed a ventilator to breathe. Typically, patients can survive on a ventilator for only about a week. “She was on [a ventilator] for two-plus weeks,” Hertz says.

“My family and friends came to say their goodbyes,” Jamie recalls tearfully.

Then, just in time, new lungs became available. On December 21, Jamie underwent a double-lung transplant performed by University surgeons Rosemary Kelly, M.D., and Sara Shumway, M.D. “It was a miracle,” Jamie says.

“It’s like winning the Super Bowl,” says Hertz. “It lifted the whole team up.”

Remarkably, Jamie has had no complications since the transplant. “She has never had a setback—which is really unusual,” says Hertz.

‘A big source of pride’

As Jamie sees it, the University doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapy team made a huge difference in her survival. “The doctors and the nursing staff were excellent. The staff really rallied around me.”

Jonathan D’Cunha, M.D., Ph.D., a University thoracic surgeon in the lung transplant program and lung researcher, says that the lung transplant team is very proud of success stories, like Jamie’s.

The University was recognized for its successes when it was awarded the HealthGrades Lung Transplant Excellence Award based on criteria that included patient survival, graft survival, the rate at which patients on the waiting list receive transplants, and the waitlist mortality.

“It’s a big source of pride for all of us,” Hertz says of the recognition.

Philanthropic support for the University’s Center for Lung Science and Health is crucial to keeping the momentum going, D’Cunha says. “We can really drive our program to the next level through giving.” Such support, he adds, could fund research to develop advances in organ preservation and stem cell research to help grow organs for transplantation.

Grateful for her lifesaving care, Jamie says she wants to give back by participating in lung transplant research studies at the University. She also is assisting hospital social workers by talking with patients who are still on the transplant waiting list—and giving them hope.

“I’m still going through the wow factor,” Jamie says of her life post-transplant. “It’s like I have a second chance.”

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