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"It's the greatest Christmas present I've ever gotten," says patient after double lung transplant surgery

Dennis Bergstrom was the 300th person to receive lung transplant surgery at Corewell Health, formerly named Spectrum Health.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — Dennis Bergstrom describes his life before he received his lung transplant as, "I was on oxygen 24/7. If I wanted to go anywhere, I would have to load all the oxygen into the car. So it's been pretty much a restricted lifestyle."

A double lung transplant was the only hope for Dennis. He remembers the day he got the call, "Exciting and emotional."  He and his wife Diane immediately packed their bags and made the 4 hour trip from Cheboygan to Grand Rapids.

But Dennis had no idea he was about to become the 300th lung transplant patient at Corewell Health's Richard DeVos Heart and Lung Transplant Program, marking a major milestone.

"I think it's a tremendous milestone to hit 300 lung transplants in less than 10 years," says Dr. Edward Murphy, head of the lung transplant program. "We've been averaging between 40 and 50 transplants a year." This makes Corewell Health's transplant program the busiest in the state and one of the best in the nation for adult lung transplant one-year patient survival rates.

Dr. Murphy says that quality of care is directly related to the number of transplants they do. "That keeps the team very fresh, instead of transplants being an occasional event here, lung transplantation is common, typically, on average, one a week or so. And that leads to a very, very experienced team that patients and their families can be confident that patients are getting very, very good care here."

It's also what has allowed the lung transplant program at Corewell Health to take on patients over the age of 65. Most transplant programs would deny anyone 65 and older because they're considered high risk. Dr. Murphy says that's not the case at Corewell Health. "If somebody has good heart function and kidney function, and the only limiting factor to their survival is their poor lungs, we don't think that their age should be impediment to being transplanted."

This is why at age 66 Dennis is now breathing with a new set of lungs. "I've been breathing room air like everybody else for over a week now. And how's that feel? Wonderful. It's just hard to explain. But it's freedom. No, it's like how life used to be."

And at just 10 days post-transplant, Dennis' recovery is remarkable thanks in part to a technique that doesn't require opening his chest. It takes just a small incision on each side. 

"We're doing these minimally invasive lung transplant operations where patients have a small incision, they don't have any bone cut. So they don't have to heal from that. And they recuperate remarkably well." Dr. Murphy describes the technique, "the trick is that lungs don't have any air in them and are much smaller than lungs that do. So well, my knees that are coming out have no air in the lungs until they're hooked up and ventilated. And so you can accomplish an awful lot through a carefully made small incision."

Two small incisions, and a new pair of lungs has Dennis looking forward to his new life. "Being able to go watch my grandkids play ball or something as simple as cut the grass."

Dennis says he is forever grateful for the donor and their family. "What I would like to do is make sure they understand that the gift they've given me, I'm going to take care of, and make last as long as I can." And he promises to pay it forward as much as he can in any way.

There are currently 1,500 people on the lung transplant waitlist nationwide. If you're interested in being an organ donor contact Gift Of Life.

13 ON YOUR SIDE Health Reporter Valerie Lego 

Val has been reporting on health and medical stories in West Michigan for 16 years. She is an 18-time Emmy Award Winner. Her health reporting credentials include fellowships from the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Association of Health Care Journalists

Contact me: vallego@13OnYourSide.com

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