Family House Diaries: The Gifts of New Lungs and Great Friends

Kena Sawyers, 46, of Eden, N.C., received a double-lung transplant at UNC Hospitals on Sept. 20, after living 15 years with lungs scarred by pneumonia secondary to adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) she contracted when pregnant with her daughter, Kayla.

Kena Sawyers isn’t sure she will be home for Christmas, but she’s already enjoying precious gifts:  new lungs and great friends.

Sawyers, 46, of Eden, N.C., received a double-lung transplant at UNC Hospitals on Sept. 20, after living 15 years with lungs scarred by pneumonia secondary to adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) she contracted when pregnant with her daughter, Kayla.

“The donor was from out of state, and I can relate to the grief the family is going through at the loss of their loved one,” said Sawyers, whose husband, Stacy, was killed in a car crash on his way to work 22 months after Kayla’s birth. “Still, I know I’m blessed.”

Although her own lungs failed her, Sawyers didn’t let being tethered to oxygen stop her from living life to the fullest.  “My doctors told me I could do anything I felt like doing,” said Sawyers, a former textile employee. “I was just a normal person with an oxygen tank.

“My husband had over 100 trees cut down in my yard, and I made it my therapy to haul mulch – five-gallon buckets at a time – for two or three months to regain my strength.  That wore me out, but the strength I gained helped me take care of my daughter.”  

Through the years, Sawyers continued to jet ski, go bowling, mow yards for others with her riding mower and volunteer at her daughter’s school every year since the now-high-school-sophomore entered kindergarten.  She stayed active until late 2008 when Sawyers developed pulmonary hypertension, a build-up of pressure in her lungs. Even walking became a challenge.  

By August 2009, Sawyers was on the transplant list.

“I’d had two false alarms that they had lungs for me, and the third call was the charm,” said Sawyers, who drove herself to Chapel Hill for the transplant. “I couldn’t get hold of any of the three friends I’d lined up to drive me because they were out of town for various family events. Finally, I caught up with Sylvia Wilson, my ‘adopted’ mother and the mother of my best friend, Beth Howell, who is taking care of Kayla, and in we came.” 

The surgery lasted 12 hours, a little longer than expected due to some bleeding triggered by a drug reaction. “But my doctors had talked with me about some of the risks of this surgery,” Sawyers said. “I had complete faith in them. Still do.”

While Sawyers was hospitalized, Wilson stayed at the SECU Family House, a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for adult patients undergoing treatment for critical illness and trauma and their family member caregivers. 

On Oct. 9, Sawyers was released from the hospital and moved into SECU Family House in preparation for the three months of required post-transplant therapy and routine pulmonary function monitoring. 

“This is a great place,” Sawyers said, of the SECU Family House.  “I can come in, relax and get my mind off everything at the hospital.  That’s really special to me since I’m at the hospital every day.  And it’s so close to the hospital, and that’s been a real blessing.

“They have a wonderful little library and computers, and one or the other will get your mind off of your troubles.  Too, I can look out my window and watch deer playing, especially in the mornings.  How much more relaxing can that be?” 

Sawyers’ new lungs are working fine, but other issues, including the on-set of diabetes – a not-uncommon side effect of immunosuppressant drugs used to keep Sawyers’ body from rejecting her new lungs – returned her to UNC Hospitals as an inpatient three times before Dec. 1.  Physical therapy, coupled with additional testing and routine monitoring, will continue for some time, but Sawyers is permitted to make occasional day trips home.  She hopes to be in Eden on Christmas Day.

“Lung transplants are a successful treatment for end-stage lung disease, with one-year survival approaching 80 to 83 percent nationally,” said Isabel Neuringer, M.D., a transplant pulmonologist and co-director of UNC Hospitals’ lung transplant program. “Kena was very ill before her transplant, and every breath was a struggle, even with maximum levels of oxygen.  She’s still on some oxygen, but she’s improving.” 

A key re-learning for Sawyers is how to breathe again, Neuringer said. “Kena’s native lungs were very scarred and changed the dynamics of her breathing and chest wall movement. There is muscle weakness and chest wall restriction that has to be reversed to accommodate the work of her new lungs.”

And Neuringer is confident Sawyers is up to the challenge. 

“She has a wonderful attitude and is an active participant in her own health care,” Neuringer said.  “She is a high-energy, exceptionally motivated person.  Too, she has a wonderful support system of friends.  It’s all a testament to her commitment to living life.”

“When I was so sick at Kayla’s birth, Stacy took such good care of me, and my friend, Dot Bowman, was Kayla’s mother the first three months of her life because I was still hospitalized,” Sawyers said.   “When it became real that a lung transplant was before me, I wondered how I would ever be so blessed with that kind of care and attention again. 

“But here they are, and I marvel at how the Lord has led them to fit so perfectly into my life like pieces of a puzzle.  I don’t know what to say beyond ‘thank you’ and ‘I am blessed’.”

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for the UNC Medical Center News Office

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