Every morning, Dennis Wiley and his wife walk four miles. In the afternoon, the 70-year-old spends an hour and a half exercising in his basement. Each week, he golfs 18 holes with his friends, walking the course as he plays.
Before he came to UPMC, Dennis was in a wheelchair because he couldn't breathe well enough to take a few steps. Now, he’s thankful to UPMC for giving him this active lifestyle every day.
The Challenge: Scleroderma and Declining Lung Function
Dennis’ journey started in early 2010 when his hands became swollen, red, and sore. The Des Moines, Iowa, resident went to several doctors, who were all puzzled by his symptoms.
Finally, a doctor diagnosed Dennis with scleroderma — an autoimmune disease that damages skin and connective tissues. Sometimes scleroderma causes scarring of the lungs and other organs.
His doctor also noted that his pulmonary (lung) function was declining. Dennis had noticed, too. When he walked the hills of the golf course, he frequently stopped to catch his breath. Mowing the lawn at home became too much. He felt fatigued and had trouble breathing.
Following his diagnosis, Dennis consulted a pulmonologist (lung doctor) who told him his lung function was declining rapidly. He also told Dennis that he needed placed on the national lung transplant list right away. Dennis was shocked.
“He said, ‘It’ll probably take you three years to get a transplanted, but I really don’t give you much more than a year to live,’” Dennis says. “I wasn’t prepared for that whatsoever.”
The Path to the UPMC Lung Transplant Program
As Dennis and his wife researched prestigious lung transplant centers, Dennis’ health continued to decline. He developed esophageal dysmotility as a result of his scleroderma. This meant that the tube that moves food to his stomach wasn’t working properly.
In desperate need of a lung transplant, the couple set off for consultations at hospitals across the country. But each transplant center turned him away after doctors learned of his scleroderma and esophageal condition.
Then, Dennis heard back from a UPMC lung transplant coordinator, who informed him that the team wanted to evaluate him. To fully assess Dennis as a transplant candidate, the UPMC lung transplant team evaluated him twice. Soon after, the team called to say they had placed Dennis on the waiting list for a pair of donor lungs.
The Wileys packed up what they needed and moved to Pittsburgh in mid-September. Dennis received ongoing pulmonary rehab there while he waited for a lung transplant.
Suddenly, on a night in early November, Dennis had extreme difficulty breathing. He went to the hospital, where he stopped breathing completely. Doctors restarted his breathing and — because of Dennis' critical condition — raised his lung allocation score. Dennis moved to the number one spot on the waiting list. The only way Dennis would get better was with a lung transplant.
The Solution: Lung Transplant Surgery
In mid-December, Dennis’ transplant surgeon called with good news: a set of lungs was available. They were a good match for Dennis, so the transplant surgery was set to begin right away.
After a seven-hour procedure, the transplant was complete. Dennis says that, as a 63-year-old, he faced challenges during his recovery. But the UPMC staff caring for him worked tirelessly for nearly two months to help him get back into shape.
The Results: Staying Active and Spending Time with Family
Because of the care he received at UPMC, Dennis and his wife looked forward to the twice-a-year trip from Iowa to Pittsburgh after surgery for his follow-up care.
“I can’t say enough good things about everybody that I came in contact with in Pittsburgh,” he says. “The doctors, nurses, and technicians would not just do the tests, but they’d tell me what was going on and show me on the screen.”
Now five years after his surgery, Dennis and his wife return just once a year. But, Dennis still makes a point to visit everyone who was part of his transplant team.
“I run into my pulmonologist all the time, and I think he’s the best in the world. And I always visit the physical therapy people; they were instrumental in me getting through that,” Dennis says.
“There are two terrific nurses — we show pictures of our grandkids to each other. It’s just a good environment.”
Dennis now leads a very active life, which he never takes for granted. He loves to exercise, play golf, and spend time with his wife, children, and grandchildren.
To make sure he can keep doing the things he loves, Dennis follows his doctors’ advice and takes his prescribed medicines to keep his lungs healthy.
“I really cherish this gift. I want to take care of it,” Dennis says.
Despite his serious illness and difficult transplant journey, Dennis says he never had doubts about his treatment or outcome at UPMC.
“I can’t remember ever being fearful of anything,” he says. “I just felt so assured that I was in the right place, that I was going to get taken care of. And I was.”
Dennis' treatment and results may not be representative of similar cases.
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