July 2, 2021

La Crosse man receives rare heart and lung transplant after one day on the wait list

Madison, Wis. — When La Crosse resident Daniel Milburn started experiencing shortness of breath in March, he thought it was just the latest manifestation of his lifelong asthma.

After all, he was a strong, physically active, and otherwise healthy 24-year-old. Turns out, Daniel’s symptoms were a result of something far more dire: A rare pulmonary disease that left him needing not only a double lung transplant to survive, but a heart transplant as well.

Daniel was admitted in late March to a hospital in La Crosse, where doctors told him he had massive blood clots in his lungs that would need to be removed as soon as possible. But Daniel’s disease, chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension, was so severe that doctors there soon realized he would need more than the medical intervention that they could provide. He was then transported via Med Flight from La Crosse to University Hospital in Madison, where a multidisciplinary team of UW Health doctors and nurses worked against the clock to try to save his life.

After initially trying advanced medical therapies to clinically stabilize Daniel, doctors made the call to put him on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a life support system that temporarily takes over the work of the heart and lungs until another treatment can be provided. In Daniel’s case, that meant he would need to be evaluated for a rare multi-organ transplant by experts from UW Health’s heart and lung transplant programs, and then have to wait for those organs to become available.

“We all knew the clock was ticking from the moment he arrived at University Hospital, but we were all determined to do everything we could to get him through this,“ said Dr. Erin Lowery, medical director for UW Health’s Lung Transplant program. “It was a herculean effort that required incredible coordination between multiple programs across the organization, and I’m really proud not only of the expertise we have here at UW Health but of the way we all worked together to save this young man’s life.”

Luckily for Daniel, his wait for lifesaving organs ended less than 24 hours after being placed on the waiting list. And although UW Health has one of the shortest wait times for a lung transplant in the nation, the timeline still surprised his doctors. Daniel ultimately got his second chance at life on Easter Sunday and was the first patient to receive a heart and lung transplant at UW Health since 2008 and only the 15th such multi-organ transplant in the program’s history.

For Daniel and his mom, who flew from California to be by her son’s side, they say care they received at UW Health gave them the hope they needed to get through such a harrowing ordeal and the confidence that Daniel will one day get back to doing many of the things he loved before getting sick.

“When I first arrived in Madison, I was obviously overwhelmed by what was going in with my son, but it felt like all these doctors, nurses, and transplant coordinators were like little angels coming to save my son,” said Daniel’s mom, Ronda Miller. “It was just so obvious that everyone we encountered at UW Health was all in from the start, and it was comforting to feel that no matter what happened to my son this hospital was going to do whatever it took to get the best outcome for Daniel.”

Daniel’s recovery is going remarkably well. He goes for 40-minute walks with his mom every day and exercises as much as he can, and he is looking forward to getting back to work once he is medically cleared to do so.

Daniel and his mom say there are no words that can truly express how grateful they are to the organ donor and their family for the decision that allowed Daniel to have a second chance at life. Daniel says he intends to honor his donor by treating their gifts with the utmost respect and by living his own life to the fullest.