UNC Health Talk

Luella Love: New Lungs for a New Life

If Luella Love believed in lucky numbers, she would pick 11.

“I got my new lungs on November 11, 2011, during a surgery that started at 11 p.m.,” said Love, 48, of Concord, NC. “I don’t believe in lucky numbers, but I do believe in God.”

Love, a petite Indiana native who has lived in North Carolina seven years, was born with cystic fibrosis (CF), a life-shortening inherited disease that causes abnormally thick, sticky mucus to build up in the breathing passages and in the pancreas, resulting in breathing difficulties and related digestive system issues. At Luella’s birth, life expectancy for CF patients hovered in the teens.

“I was diagnosed at 18 months old and my mother was told I wouldn’t live to see kindergarten,” Love said. “My mother died of lung cancer in 1996, and I celebrated my 48th birthday days after my transplant. My new chance at life feels like a miracle to me.”

Despite CF, Luella had never excused herself from life. She ran five miles – morning and evening – in her 20s. When she could no longer run, she walked. She worked in customer relations for a bank until chronic respiratory and digestive issues requiring hospitalizations signaled that CF was winning. By May of last year her body was showing signs of shutting down.

She prayed for new lungs. Reluctantly.

“I’m a long-time organ donor myself, and I had real mixed emotions when I prayed for new lungs.”

“I’m a long-time organ donor myself, and I had real mixed emotions when I prayed for new lungs,” Luella said. “Never will I forget that my getting a second chance at life means someone lost theirs. Still, I wanted the call that there were lungs for me.”

The call came early on Nov. 11 and during a 14-hour surgery, Benjamin E. Haithcock, MD, assistant professor of surgery at the UNC School of Medicine and lead lung transplant surgeon at the UNC Center for Transplant Care, transplanted the new lungs into Luella’s chest. Fifteen to 20 lung transplants are performed at UNC Hospitals each year.

“I will always remember Dr. Haithcock telling me my new lungs were pristine and the perfect size for my small frame,” Luella said. “When the time is right, I want to thank the family of the donor for their loved one’s priceless gift.”

Dr. Haithcock credits Luella’s diligence with pre-transplant physical therapy with getting her back in the game of life.

“Our lung transplant patients are required to be up and moving around as much as possible,” Dr. Haithcock said. “Luella followed those instructions to the letter, and it shows. Four to six hours after transplant, she was raring to go, the breathing tube came out and she was walking.”

Unexpected gallbladder and liver issues required additional surgery and extended her recovery, but Luella sees them as distant bumps in the road.

“Often the steroids and anti-inflammatory drugs that transplant patients must take make them less sensitive to pain, and it’s sometimes hard to diagnose when there are post-transplant infections or issues,” Dr. Haithcock said. “Still, she’s really done great, and I fully expect to see her on a track or running a 5K soon.”

Luella expects that soon, too. Her diligence in all post-transplant therapies rivals her pre-transplant dedication because she sees time that she didn’t expect to have stretch before her.

“Before the transplant, my best day would be someone else’s bad day.”

“Before the transplant, my best day would be someone else’s bad day,” Luella said, remembering the difficulty breathing when not even exerting herself, the digestive issues, some bladder- and bowel-control issues. “I’m free of all that now. And I have time.

“I want to ramp up my advocacy for organ donation. I want to work with support groups for CF patients because I know what it’s like not to have that. I want to be there to hold someone’s hand when they need it most. I want to learn to dance, to run – yes, a 5K, and to learn to crochet.”

Learning to crochet helped pass the time during Luella’s required 90 to 100 days post-transplant stay at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes away from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

Transplant patients are monitored closely for signs of organ rejection and other complications and have multiple therapies weekly to help their minds and bodies adjust to the new normal. A shuttle takes patients to and from the hospital regularly, and emergency transport is arranged as needed.

“As excited as I am about going home, I am sad about leaving Family House,” Luella said, as she headed home to Concord on March 1. “I’m treated like family here, with love and respect. I know without this place my recovery would have been slower. The food provided by volunteers is always excellent, and the after-dinner entertainment is always nice. There are places for solitude and places for coming together. I have to figure out a way to give back for all they’ve given me.”

Luella was joined at Family House by her sister, Crystal, from Indiana, who stayed by Luella’s side since the transplant.

“Crystal is a blessing to me,” Luella said. “She’s lifted me, bathed me, done my laundry, organized my very large pillbox, gone with me to every appointment and helped me think, and she’s taught me to crochet.

“She’s missed her sons’ birthdays, and Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s with her husband and their family. She misses them greatly, and I can’t thank her enough for what she’s done for me. She’s been a little bit of everything to me, and at the end of the day, she’s still my sister.”

To learn about becoming an organ donor, contact Carolina Donor Services, the federally designated organ procurement organization serving 6.1 million people in 79 counties in North Carolina and Danville, Va. (www.carolinadonorservices.org, 919-489-8404)