Dennis and Diane Bergstrom sat peacefully in their hospital room, awaiting the OK to head to Renucci Hospitality House after Dennis had a lung transplant just a few days prior.
A noteworthy procedure for Corewell Health, as it marked the 300th lung transplant performed to date.
And if you ask Dennis how he’s doing, he’d use the word great.
“My oxygen levels are looking good, I’m feeling good and I’m in absolutely no pain,” the Cheboygan, Michigan, resident said.
Prior to surgery, he was on 5 liters of oxygen resting, and he could only keep his oxygen levels at 91% or 92%. He’s now at a steady 98%, sitting upright in bed with no oxygen support.
He held a pillow, formed in the shape of a pink set of lungs, that said, “Live well, breathe well.”
He then set out to tackle some physical therapy. As he walked up and down the halls of the hospital, he said he’s looking forward to going home soon.
Just days after surgery he was walking about 1,200 feet a day, a common goal for patients who undergo transplant.
“He was up and walking on day two,” Diane, his wife, said. “They sat him up in the chair and he took his first steps.”
The transplant, performed on Dec. 5, was a serious and lengthy surgery—a 10-hour procedure in total.
Dennis and his family got the call at 11 p.m. the night before surgery, letting them know the lungs were available and that surgery was scheduled for the next day.
“We got dressed and literally came to the hospital,” Diane said. “It was a long couple of days, but I have been sleeping pretty well and am staying at the Renucci House.”
Dennis said his improved breathing was the first thing he noticed after surgery.
“Breathing seemed so easy to me,” he said. “I was just struggling to breathe before and was even on oxygen.
“I would definitely call this life-changing. A miracle. Exciting. Everything you can roll into one big happy thought.”
A team that is ‘unreal’
Dennis, 66, couldn’t be home for the holidays, as the first four weeks post-surgery are the most challenging. He would need to stay near the hospital. He would be out of the hospital, however, staying at the Renucci House with his wife for four weeks.
If all goes well, they’ll return home afterward.
“They put together a team here that is unreal,” Dennis said. “The progress has just been phenomenal. Everyone is saying how proud they are of me. I’m proud of me.”
Dennis chose to have the surgery in Grand Rapids because he has family that lives there.
And after meeting with the care team, including Medical Director of Transplantation Reda Girgis, MD, Dennis said he knew he had found the right place.
“After the first meeting with Dr. Girgis, all the way through, we felt so comfortable,” he said. “We knew it was the right place to do it and that we had the right team.”
He said he was also surprised with the level of thoroughness in planning the surgery.
“There are a lot of moving pieces,” he said. “At one point, I had to give 18 tubes of blood for pretests. The attention to detail was amazing.”
Edward Murphy, MD, Richard DeVos Endowed Chair for Lung Transplantation at Corewell Health West, who performed the 10-hour surgery, said it is rewarding to help 300 patients with this surgery in just 10 years.
“We use a variety of techniques to expand the donor pool,” he said. “Lungs can even be removed from the body and placed on a device to ventilate and monitor them. We have used this procedure many times to verify that a set of donor lungs is functioning nicely, so that we can confidently use them for transplantation.”
Dr. Murphy said his team receives referrals from patients across Michigan, as well as nearby states. The transplant team has also had a few international patients.
“It’s a tremendous gift for a family to donate the organs of a loved one who passes,” he said. “It is helpful if the donor has previously expressed interest in being a donor, so please consider signing up to be on the donor registry.
“I am very proud of our team, which functions at an extremely high level to provide consistently excellent care to patients throughout their entire transplantation experience,” he added.
Dr. Murphy said Dennis would not have been considered a candidate for transplantation at many programs because he is older than 65.
“Our program is the busiest lung transplant program in the state, with the best one year outcomes in the country,” he said. “This is particularly impressive when you consider that we transplant many higher risk patients who would not be considered for lung transplantation elsewhere because of their age, history of previous heart or lung surgery, need for redo transplantation, or associated medical conditions.”
Living his best life
Dennis said he’s most looking forward to visiting with his grandsons, and he’ll hopefully be able to attend their games soon.
“I’m also looking forward to being able to take my wife out to dinner,” he said. “I haven’t left the house in about a year. It was always so much of an effort.”
He and his wife loved to go to the casino, but that had required a lot of work to get packed up for an evening out.
“I’m really just looking forward to living a normal life again,” he said. “Snowblowing and mowing the grass even. You don’t realize how important those things are until you can’t do them.”
He has five grandchildren, as well as family members in Canada who he hasn’t seen in some time.
Diane said they’re limiting visitors for now out of caution.
“Somebody has given me a very precious gift and I’m going to guard it,” Dennis said. “I would tell them thank you, but that’s not even enough.”
They both said the entire process has exceeded their expectations.
“And I set my expectations pretty high,” Dennis said. “It’s really just a miracle. It blows my mind that they can do things like this.”
He had looked into surgery about five years ago, then recently decided to pursue the transplant.
“It was time,” he said. “There is such a thing as quality of life and I just didn’t have it.”
In the days following the surgery, Diane said she and Dennis have been working on being patient throughout the recovery.
“He’s ready to take some of these tubes out,” she joked. “But the nursing staff is keeping him in line.”
One of Dennis’ nurses, Jessica Robinson, RN, chimed in: “You are a rock star.”