April 20, 2013

16 years later, Augusta lung transplant survivor thankful, dedicated

Christine Lowell, 32, among the longest-lived double lung transplant recipients who had living donors — her father and her uncle

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA — Christine Lowell's every breath relies on lungs that once belonged to her father and her uncle.

click image to enlarge

Sixteen years ago, Christine Lowell, of Augusta, right, received a double lung transplant with donations from her father, Walter Lowell, left, and uncle, David Lowell, not pictured.

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

click image to enlarge

Christine Lowell

Staff photo by Joe Phelan

Their gifts have kept her alive for the past 16 years.

She was only 16 and dying of end stage lung disease from cystic fibrosis when father Walter and uncle David Lowell each donated a lobe of their lungs so she could live.

Lowell, now 32, is a petite woman who is among the longest-lived double lung transplant recipients who had living donors. Most transplants today use organs from cadavers.

Bright-eyed and smiling frequently, she is passionate as she advocates for more people to become organ donors.

"I would encourage everybody to sign up to be an organ donor," she said. "There are so many people who are waiting for organs."

She agreed to tell the story of how her family, her community and her medical care providers came together to save her life just as it seemed to be ending. She wants those waiting for a transplant "to know there's hope and success."

According to the website of the New England Organ Bank, a federally designated organ procurement group, more than 114,000 U.S. citizens "are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants and many more wait for donated tissues."

An average of 17 people in the U.S. die every day — 6,600 each year — while waiting for an organ transplant, according to the website. The reason a shortage of donated organs and tissues, it says.

As part of April Donate Life Month, Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who has long supported organ donation, hosted a news conference with representatives from the organ bank. Dunlap said of 989,147 active driver's licenses in Maine, about 510,462 people have indicated they are willing to be organ donors.

Mainers who might not have driver's licenses can indicate their willingness through an Organ Donor Registry offered on the secretary of state's website.

"We want to encourage this as much as possible," Dunlap said. "It's little bit easier now for people in that situation (to) have their wishes known in a more timely fashion. These are tragedies, but you can make something good out of it."

Time running out

By the summer of 1996, Christine Lowell was placed on a waiting list for cadaver lungs. Her health declined rapidly, resulting in a series of hospitalizations.

David Lowell suggested a living transplant.

"My brother called and said, 'If you need a donor, I'm available,'" Walter Lowell recalled recently as he sat next to his daughter on the couch in the family's living room. "That was the first time it entered my head as a possibility."

The brothers underwent tests to see if they were compatible, but Massachusetts General Hospital decided the match wasn't close enough, Walter Lowell said.

Then one of Christine Lowell's doctors, Anne M. Cairns, contacted Children's Hospital in St. Louis, where she had trained, and a doctor and nurse flew to Massachusetts and took the patient and her father back with them.

"She didn't have many options left," her father said.

Christine Lowell was stabilized and was put on another waiting list for cadaver lungs because doctors figured her chances for a match were better at a centrally located hospital.

"I was deteriorating," Christine Lowell said. "I could not get out of bed. I could not walk 10 feet to the bathroom. I was on four to six liters of oxygen. It was extremely unlikely I was going to survive the eight months or so for cadaver lungs to arrive."

Walter Lowell asked doctors to reconsider the living donations because of her condition and because the constant travel between Maine and Missouri was such a strain on the family. Finally, the donors got the green light.

(Continued on page 2)

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