Ernie Gillispie, 68, spent 37 years working in Kentucky coal mines, and 25 years living with black lung disease. His lungs were full of coal dust, and it was, quite literally, killing him.
“If you can’t breathe, you can’t do anything,” Gillispie said.
By December 2010, it was so hard for Gillispie to breathe that he could not walk five feet on his own. He was forced to use a wheelchair. He became weaker and weaker, and his prospects were grim. “I didn’t think I was going to make it,” he said.
But then Gillespie and his wife of 34 years, Vanessia, came to UK HealthCare. They have three children and four grandchildren.
“We met with Dr. Charles Hoopes to see if there was anything we could do,” Vanessia Gillespie said. Hoopes, director of UK HealthCare’s Heart and Lung Transplant Program and the director of the Ventricular Assist Device Program, told the Gillispies about an option that could save his life, but since Gillespie would be the first patient at UK to have the therapy, there were significant risks involved.
Hoopes recommended Gillispie undergo surgery to allow the use of an artificial lung and double lumen catheter, an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), to improve his condition and quality of life with the hope this improvement would make him a candidate for a double lung transplant.
ECMO, used in cases so severe the usual therapy of a respirator, machines and extra oxygen are ineffective, allows blood to receive oxygen from the artificial device. This particular device was created by UK HealthCare's surgeon in chief, Jay Zwischenberger, MD, and is used worldwide.
With the assistance of the device, Gillispie proved himself to be a candidate for lung transplantation. Without it, he would not have been strong enough for a transplant surgery, Zwischenberger said.
Not only is this lung technology significant to UK HealthCare, Zwischenberger said, it is also significant to Kentucky, "This [lung technology] sets us up to be able to bridge patients to lung transplant rather than having their condition continue to deteriorate while waiting for a transplant," he said. "Dr. Hoopes is an early adapter of this technique, and we are now one of only a very few places in the country that utilizes ambulatory ECMO as a bridge to transplant."
Zwischenberger has been working on the development of an artificial lung for 25 years and began partnering with co-inventor Dongfang Wang, MD, PhD, UK director of the Artificial Organ Laboratory, nine years ago on the double lumen catheter (DLC) project.
After only three days of Gillispie using the artificial lung, a successful double lung transplant was performed on April 11, 2011.
"I can breathe again and before the ECMO I couldn't do anything," Gillispie said.
"Before the surgeries if I tried to walk 25 feet, I'd collapse. But, two hours after the ECMO surgery I was riding a bicycle and four hours after that I was walking down the hallway. And, it keeps getting better from there. It's a new breath of life."
"It's a new breath of life."
View or download printable PDF of Ernie's story (88 KB) »
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Black lung disease can be complicated to manage. Also called pneumoconiosis, lungs are damaged by breathing in coal dust; triggering a variety of complications in the lungs. Learn more about black lung disease »
Ernie’s team of providers at UK HealthCare included: • Enrique Diaz-Guzman Zavala, MD, transplant surgeon• Charles W. Hoopes, MD, transplant surgeon• Jay Zwischenberger, MD, creator, Ventricular Assist Device (VAD)
• UK Transplant Center • Frequently asked questions about Transplant • Transplant glossary • Artificial Lung Device Pioneered at UK is New Breath of Life for Pike County Patient • Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates
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