Eileen Salmons breathes today thanks to a pair of donor lungs.
Diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1988, Eileen’s disease was controlled with medications.
In 2009 she began to notice a problem with her breathing, particularly when going up hill. She knew that part of her regime for her arthritis was to get as much exercise as she could. Eileen enjoyed swimming and long walks and staying active in general. All was well until difficulties with her breathing became more frequent and she went to see her doctor.
He referred her to a specialist in Kelowna in the spring of 2011 where she was put through many breathing tests resulting in a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis. What was the cause? This was never definitively answered.
Pulmonary fibrosis is scar tissue in the connective tissues of the lung. The specialist speculated it might have been caused by the arthritis medication or possibly the arthritis itself.
The bottom line for Eileen was this condition couldn’t be fixed. The best they could hope for was to keep it from getting worse. Again exercise was the best course of action.
“I was just happy for a diagnosis,” Eileen said.
She was to see the specialist every three months and maintain an exercise routine, difficult as that was, Eileen persevered.
Things changed in October 2013. Eileen hurt her knee, collapsed and was in a lot of pain.
Husband Bob took her to emergency at the Quesnel Hospital where she was admitted for low red blood cell count for five days. Over the next two and half months she received seven blood transfusions. Again the arthritis meds were thought to be the cause.
By November, Eileen was taken off all her arthritis medications and as expected, by Jan. 5, 2014 she was in a full-blown arthritis flare up, admitted to the hospital again with excessively low red blood cell count, had two transfusions and they found her lungs were much worse.
“The flare-up was horrible, I was put on oxygen full time and desperate for a fix,” Eileen said.
“I couldn’t breathe.”
Bob was very concerned.
“I was watching her deteriorate, getting worse by the hour,” he said.
Both were grateful for the amazing care from Dr. Aziz here in Quesnel.
On Jan. 18, 2014 Eileen and Bob were sent by air ambulance to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.
“There were about a dozen doctors a day coming to see Eileen,” Bob said.
“She was sitting up coughing and struggling for every breath.”
Things went from bad to worse for his wife.
Jan. 20 she was moved to the intensive care unit as a precaution the specialists said, but by the afternoon she was in respiratory failure and put on life support. That lasted for eight days.
“I was scared,” Bob said.
“I called our two boys who flew down to see their mother.”
Eileen was bombarded with drugs, anti-rejection, anti-inflammatory and on Jan. 30 they added prednisone.
Unbelievably, Eileen rallied and was moved back to the ward. Altogether she spent 84 days in St. Paul’s.
In early February, Eileen was visited by Dr. Levy, head of the lung transplant clinic with BCTransplant. He already knew her file.
For the first time in their lives, the discussion of a double lung transplant was presented to the couple.
“We’d never given any thought to a transplant. It never crossed our minds,” Bob and Eileen said.
Suddenly she was on a totally different path. A path to a possible transplant. They completed all the preliminary tests in two weeks.
However, before she could get to VGH’s transplant clinic, Eileen was back in the ICU with sepsis, a blood infection which took 10 days to clear up.
She also battled a bout of pneumonia.
She was transported by ambulance and transferred to a wheel chair where she finally met with Dr. Mader at the transplant clinic. Instead of a warm welcome, Eileen and Bob were met with a rather unhappy doctor.
He was not pleased with how sick she was. He agreed she needed a double lung transplant but accurately deduced she wasn’t strong enough to survive the operation, let alone recover.
She was admitted to the program but he refused
to put her on the transplant list until she was much stronger and able to withstand the operation.
“That was a tough day,” Eileen admitted.
Bob added the doctor refused to see her again until she could walk into his office on her own.
Again Eileen was back to exercise, exercise, exercise.
She was sent to the Kelowna Hospital in April 2014 for rehabilitation in their rehab centre. After a month, she walked out of the hospital but remained an outpatient.
They stayed with her sister and brother-in-law who were happy to help out. She was at physiotherapy twice a week and as much walking as possible.
“I was getting stronger but the the fibrosis was progressing, I could tell,” Eileen said.
June they were back in the transplant clinic, Eileen walked in under her own power. They met with lots of specialists who were pleased and admired Eileen for her determination to improve.
June 26 was a red-letter day for Eileen, she was activated to the transplant list.
“That’s when I cried,” she admitted.
“I was so happy to be on the list.”
For Bob, he knew all they could do now was wait – a familiar place for him.
He’d lost count of the time he’s spent waiting for his wife to be better.
But his hope and faith never failed.
They stayed in Kelowna until returning to their home in Quesnel March 6, 2015.
“It’s very hard to be away from home,” Bob said.
They were also anxiously waiting for the call. Their cell phone was on all the time and they couldn’t be out of cell service, ever.
June 17, 2015, 12:15 p.m. will forever be imprinted on both Bob and Eileen.
When the phone rang, Eileen answered it and
the woman on the other end of the phone simply said, “we have lungs for you.”
“I couldn’t speak, I had no words,” Eileen said.
They were ready, the ambulance was on its way to transport them to the airport and the plane and transplant team were in the air, winging their way to Eileen’s future.
By 3 p.m. they were in VGH and immediately Eileen had a a chest X-ray in the ER before being wheeled to the step down ward. Tests and preparation for surgery followed. By 7 p.m. she was in the operating room.
“They kept cautioning me that the lungs might not be viable,” Eileen said.
By 8 p.m. she was wheeled into the OR and Bob learned at 9:02 p.m. it was a go.
And the familiar refrain began for him, “worry and wait.” The surgeon has told Bob this transplant couldn’t have come at a better time as her lungs were deteriorating rapidly.
“He said she didn’t have much time and that transplant was her only hope,” Bob said.
“Without the transplant he said she had about two years.”
They had been advised the surgery would be between eight and 12 hours, so when the surgeon called Bob at 3:23 a.m. he feared the worst.
“But he said everything went well and the lungs started working as soon as they were transplanted,” Bob said with a big smile.
“Eileen was heading to the ICU.”
Her first memory after surgery was taking a long deep breath.
“They took the oxygen off me in the ICU to test my new lungs and I’ve never had it since that moment,” Eileen said.
“I knew I had my second chance.”
Although they would spend the next few months with followups at the transplant clinic and lots of physiotherapy, Eileen and Bob embraced their new lease on life. By the end of August Eileen was walking around the block and by October she was back home.
In total they had been away from home, friends and family for almost two years and Eileen agreed she felt like a returning soldier.
“Everyone moves on with their life, home didn’t really feel like home and we had to return to the transplant clinic every two weeks,” she said.
“But every breath I take is a gift.”
She continues to monitor her vitals every day and must watch for any changes, visits to the transplant clinic are now once a month and she isn’t allowed to go swimming, a favourite exercise before the transplant, but life is great for Eileen.
“We are forever in debt to all the doctors, staff, my sister and a great group of friends and family,” she said.
However, without that donor, none of this would have been possible.”
Everyone, including medical personnel are amazed at how well Eileen is doing.
“I always said, give me lungs and I’ll make them work.”
When asked if there was a bucket list, Eileen said new lungs were very high on the list.
For Bob, he said they’ve always wanted to go on a road trip in the spiffy sports car he won a few years ago.
“I want to go on that trip,” he said and Eileen agreed.
Registering as a organ and tissue transplant donor is as simple as dropping by the Service BC counter in the government building or visiting www.transplant.bc.ca and following the prompts.
Quesnel has an amazing 6,272 registered donors as of March 1, but your registration could also save a life. Register now.