Kena Sawyers: New Lungs, New Life, Part II

Kena Sawyers 2
Making memories and “praising and serving God” are priorities for Kena Sawyers every day.

A Rockingham County woman gets a second double-lung transplant on her 51st birthday, allowing her to breathe without the use of an oxygen tank for the first time in 20 years.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047,  

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Kena Sawyers thought few things could hold a candle to her 50th birthday party: a surprise celebration with friends who gifted her with a grill. But the double-lung transplant — her second — on her 51st birthday on March 8 took the cake and gave her the capacity to blow out candles on every birthday cake ahead.

“It’s the first time in 20 years I haven’t needed an oxygen tank to breathe,” said Sawyers of Eden, N.C., in Rockingham County.  “It’s really hard to put into words what that freedom feels like.  I can tell you it feels really good, and it was worth the wait.”

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Kena Sawyers
Sawyers received her first transplant on Sept. 20, 2009, at UNC Hospitals 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 was featured in Family House Diaries that December.

Despite taking good care of those first new lungs, Kena still had to rely on oxygen 24/7.  Her lung health deteriorated, and by September 2013, she again found herself on the lung transplant list. Her overall health worsened, causing her to become too sick for a transplant, and she was removed from the list for two weeks in October.

“But I turned the corner and began to feel better and get better, enough to get back on the transplant list,” Kena said.  

She was at home when the call came around 10 p.m. on March 6, the day a late season storm left the roads between Eden and Chapel Hill icy and treacherous.

“Just like the first transplant, I drove myself with my good friend and adopted mother, Sylvia Wilson right there with me,” Kena said, matter-of-factly.  “I do like to drive, and I do it very well. I drove really slow and was extra careful.  What normally would have taken about 90 minutes, took me three hours. But we made it, and we actually made it to UNC before my new lungs arrived.”  

After 13 hours of surgery that ended around 6 a.m. on March 8, Kena had new lungs.

This time, two ribs — those that float on the back side of the rib cage — were removed, giving Kena’s new lungs more space.

“I always thought I needed that spacer from the beginning, and it has made a world of difference,” Kena said, adding that she knows that she will be remembered for asking a lot of questions that bordered on second guessing the excellent care she received from UNC Hospitals transplant team. “That’s just my nature.  

“Dr. [Benjamin] Haithcock, the transplant program surgical director, did both of the transplants,” Kena said.  “Dr. Jason Lobo is my transplant pulmonologist and the primary physician I see now for follow-up.  My coordinators and therapists are many of the same people who have taken such good care of me since 2009.  It’s a bit like old-home week, and I’ve never doubted I’m in excellent hands.”

After 17 days in UNC Hospitals (compared to one month for the first transplant), Kena was released to the 40-bedroom SECU Family House for the required 100 days post-transplant period.  Again she was in familiar territory with the safe, affordable and convenient accommodations Family House provides for seriously ill patients and their loved ones. Sylvia joined her there.

At Family House Kena also connected with Christina Queen, 22, of Rutherfordton in Rutherford County, who had received a double-lung transplant to cure cystic fibrosis weeks after Kena’s transplant.

“We actually met in rehab and had physical therapy together,” Christina said.  “She has been such a mentor to me.  She knows what I am going through and she can answer my questions.  She constantly reminds me of things I need to do and to say to keep healing, but not in a nagging way.  We can tease and make our points to each other in ways some people might not understand or follow.”

“That’s the beauty of Family House,” Kena said.  “We’re so supportive of each other here.  Compassion is alive here, and we learn to care about each other whether we know their story or not.”

A few days before she was released to return to her native Eden in mid-June, Kena, Sylvia, Christina and Christina’s grandmother and caregiver, Lois Johnston, went on a road trip heading East. Kena drove. No one navigated.

“It was the opportunity we all needed to make some memories without any constraints,” Kena said. “We wound up in Smithfield and to Raleigh where we got ‘Hot Donuts Now’ at Krispy Kreme although none of us should have been eating them because of our diabetes.  We wore those funny paper hats.  We got back to Family House in time for a volunteer-provided supper, not because I had an oxygen tank that was about to run out.”

Making memories and “praising and serving God” are priorities for Kena every day.

“There are some people who think I should not have gotten the second transplant, that the first one was enough when there are so many others waiting,” Kena said. “But I was well enough for it and it happened because it was God’s will.  He has a plan for me, although I don’t know quite what it is. The honor is all His.”

Kena knows there will not be a third transplant so she’s taking extra good care of the new lungs that have given her a new lease on life.

“It’s not that I didn’t take good care of the first lungs, but I always felt like a failure because I still needed oxygen,” Kena said.  “I was doing everything I was supposed to and it wasn’t enough.  But I’m still here, for a reason.”

Back in Eden she’s making memories with her two grandchildren — 20-month-old Aleigha and 5-month-old Treygan.  “I babysat them both for an hour for the first time by myself on July 9, and it was wonderful,” Kena said.  

She’s made a trip to the beach and has a trip to the mountains planned.  She would like to get a job for a car dealership, driving cars wherever they need them delivered.  

“And I want to stay up and stay out all night at least once to see what it’s like,” she said. “Not because I want to carouse or get into trouble, but because I can.  No oxygen tank needed or allowed.”

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