A little over a year ago, Mary Heeren noticed her health worsening, rather quickly.

She had trouble breathing and she learned she had extremely low oxygen levels.

The Manton, Michigan, resident had lived with chronic bronchitis since childhood, which required various treatments over the years. But this felt like something more.

“I had been really short of breath, but thought it was just bronchitis, as it had always been,” she said.

She soon learned she had pulmonary fibrosis.

“It’s like scar tissue on the inside of the lungs,” Mary, 59, said. “I didn’t get to see my lungs, but you get a lot of holes on them and, over time, your lungs start to shrink.”

Life expectancy after a diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis can vary. While some people with the disease will live only three to five years, others may live longer. Often, a patient requires a lung transplant.

Mary knew she would need a lung transplant. She also learned she had heart problems that would require bypass surgery.

After researching her options, she connected with Corewell Health, formerly Spectrum Health.

‘The situation was serious’

On a wintry Thursday in January 2022, Mary went to the Corewell Health’s Richard DeVos Heart and Lung Transplant Program, where she met with pulmonologist Reda Girgis, MD.

Doctors wanted to get Mary in for open-heart surgery, but they would need to ensure they could also perform the double lung transplant at the same time.

The main concern: rapidly progressive pulmonary fibrosis and progressive respiratory failure, Dr. Girgis said.

“She had coronary disease requiring two bypasses, which made surgery a lot more complicated,” he said.

Just two hours after Dr. Girgis left her room, Mary found out they had a set of lungs for her.

She would undergo the double lung transplant and bypass surgery. She would be the first patient at Corewell Health to undergo a double lung transplant and a double heart bypass at the same time.

“I didn’t realize how close I was,” Mary said. “One of the doctors told me how bad it was prior to surgery and I immediately knew the situation was serious.”

The slightest movement felt like it wiped her out completely. The care team placed her on oxygen—50 liters per minute.

Between open-heart surgery and the lung transplantation, she spent more than 15 hours in surgery with Edward Murphy, MD, cardiothoracic surgeon.

Just a day later, she could stand up, although she couldn’t walk just yet. She was also in and out of the ICU. By Day 4, however, she found herself up and walking.

“The nurses would tell me, ‘You’re blowing people away, even people who would have a single bypass,'” Mary said. “And that gave me hope and kept me motivated.”

Dr. Girgis and his team have had great success in treating patients who face severe lung disease.

“The surgery came with risk, but we certainly hoped the outcome (would) be positive,” he said. “We are pleased with her outcomes so far, and are indeed hopeful.”

The team at the Richard DeVos Heart and Lung Transplant Program has completed about 300 lung transplants since the program began in 2013.

“Single versus double are both complicated procedures,” Dr. Girgis said. “We handle both here on a regular basis.”

And while Mary is still recovering, her prognosis is good.

“My doctors are amazed by my recovery,” she said. “They had me medicated and it was hard to breathe at times. But I’m up and walking now.”

She has returned several times to visit the team at Corewell Health’s Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.

“We made friends with so many of the hospital staff members,” Mary said. “They were so amazing to work with and were always looking out for me.”

‘I’m doing fantastic’

Fast forward about a year.

On any given day, you might find Mary shopping at the department store, or getting back into her normal routine of cooking and cleaning at home.

She is indeed on the mend, Dr. Girgis said.

“Mary had a complicated post-operative course,” he said. “But (she) has since been discharged and is ultimately doing quite well.”

Mary said she’s grateful for the support she has received along the way.

“What a blessing my husband Greg was. Honest to God,” she said. “He learned so much from me being in the hospital, they started calling him a nurse. And he took great care of me. I couldn’t do much of anything on my own at first.”

She’s also thankful for her donor.

“If it wasn’t for my donor I wouldn’t be here,” she said.

In one of their first outings after surgery, she and Greg went to a Detroit Tigers game.

“We found close parking,” she said. “I bit off a little more than I could chew and had to sit down, but it was a great time.”

In the initial stages of recovery, when she’d visit department stores to shop, she would use the buggies to scooter around the store. But nowadays, she’s mostly walking.

“I’m told in about a year we’ll be back to 100 percent,” Greg said. “And about as good as she’ll ever get. The good thing is she’s cooking again, so we don’t have to eat my food.”

“I’m doing fantastic, feeling great,” Mary said.

About every two weeks, she and Greg return to Grand Rapids for health care appointments and checkups. She recently underwent a procedure on her carotid artery, and she anticipates a full recovery.

“I had my heart appointment … and was told everything sounded fantastic,” she said. “And I don’t need to be seen again for six months. And my last appointment with my doctor was great, too. All my bloodwork came back looking good and everyone was happy with everything.”

The couple recently celebrated their 31st wedding anniversary with a road trip across northern Michigan.

“We went up to the casino and went up along Grand Traverse Bay,” Mary said. “We checked out Elk Lake and stopped and had lunch. It was nice to get out again.”

They also visit truck shows in the summer and, whenever possible, they get out for walks in their neighborhood. They like to hike, too. Most recently, they logged a 1 1/2-mile hike at Seven Bridges in Kalkaska County.

“I’ve been able to do a lot of visiting and a lot of things I wasn’t able to do before,” Mary said. “I’m finally feeling like I’m giving back to those people who helped me out when I wasn’t doing so well. It’s just amazing how I’m feeling.”