On waitlist less than 24 hours, man with cystic fibrosis gets double lung transplant

After spending less than 24 hours on the donor waiting list, a man from Spruce Grove has new lungs and is now recovering at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute.

Dennis Nagy, 47, diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at eight months old, was put on the lung transplant list late last week.

Danielle Verbeek said her brother had been told he had one month to live. He was put on a ventilator and doctors told her his lungs could no longer keep him alive.

"We all rushed to the hospital," she said. "And by the time that we got here, he was completely sedated and intubated. It was quite scary."

Trevor Wilson/CBC

Verbeek said she spent that morning with her brother. In the afternoon, she received a phone call.

"It was the transplant doctor and he said, we can't believe this but we have a donor," Verbeek said. "They've never seen it happen that fast. So we were just all in tears. It was quite amazing." 

Risk of Hepatitis C

Verbeek said she was told the lungs were originally supposed to be given to someone else, but the donor had hepatitis C. 

"At the hospital where this other person was waiting for the lungs, they don't follow the protocol to be able to accept an organ that is infected with hep C," she said. 

"In Edmonton, we do follow the protocol. So Dennis lucked out as they were offered only to a hospital that followed the protocol."   

Verbeek said there's a chance her brother might contract the virus, but there's also a 97-per-cent chance he could be cured if he does.  

Dr. Jayan Nagendran, surgical director of the lung transplant program at the University of Alberta Hospital, said it's safe practice to transplant lungs from donors who are hep C positive. 

"With the medications currently available, we should be able to clear those infections should they develop an infection, post-operatively so it is now a moving guideline, that it is safe practice to do so," he said. 

"The University of Alberta Hospital is one of the earlier adopters to do that," Nagendran said. 

Patients still waiting for lung transplant

 Nagendran said on average, people wait for about half a year before getting a match for a lung. He says the case of someone finding a donor within 24 hours is rare. 

"However it can happen for various causes, including the size of the patient who needs the organ, their gender, their blood type and also their need on our status of the waitlist," he said. 

The University of Alberta Hospital lung transplant program is the central referral program for northern B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and all territories. 

 Nagendran said they serve more than seven million Canadians. In 2018, the program had a waitlist of nearly 110 patients and performed 70 transplants.

"In terms of the success of getting a transplant, we're still really struggling from a lack of viable donors for transplantation," he said. 

"In fact, less than one-in-four sets of lungs offered go on to be accepted for lung transplantation and as a result of that, unfortunately we still have about one-in-three patients waiting for lung transplants dying before they actually receive a lung transplant." 

'All we can say is, thank you' 

Cathy Nagy said her son is an introvert who loves baseball and umpiring.

"He is so passionate about his umpiring," she said. "He's been doing it for 20 years and this is what he actually lives for in the summertime."

According to his sister, Dennis will need to be in and out of the hospital for a year before he fully recovers. 

From his hospital bed, Dennis said he's looking forward to going camping with his nine-year-old daughter, Emma, and spending time with her.

Peggy Lam/CBC

"She takes after me, she's strong headed," he said. "If there's one thing I can say, I did right in my life by having my daughter. That's what pushed me through."

Meanwhile his mom and sister are fundraising for his post-surgery recovery expenses. They are trying to reach $7,500, and so far have raised nearly $5,000. 

They also wanted to thank the family of the donor.

"There are no words," Cathy Nagy said. "All we can say is, thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

"We can't believe where we were last week," said Verbeek. "You just never know what today will bring for you. I think it's very important that people know the wishes of their family and take the steps to sign the [donor] cards."