Lung transplant

After collapsed lungs, Bill is saved by double transplant

Man wearing sweater standing outside and smiling.

Bill Graham is well-qualified to act as a mentor for other transplant patients at the UW Health Transplant Center—he has undergone not just one, but two organ transplants over the past year.

He has faced his own mortality more times than he would have liked, and he’s still thinking about the future.

“I’m probably going back to work in some way, shape or form,” said Bill, who has his own construction company.

Bill is especially unique because he was the first UW Health transplant patient to qualify for the United Network for Organ Sharing’s new “Safety Net” policy. Under the policy, patients who undergo a lung transplant, then experience kidney failure within 365 days, can receive priority classification on the wait list for a new kidney. Bill’s double lung transplant was on Jan. 27, 2023, and his kidney transplant was on Jan. 17, 2024.

In search of a miracle

Back in 2015, Bill learned he had sarcoidosis, an autoimmune disease in which tiny collections of inflammatory cells grow in the lungs and lymph nodes. He theorized that it could be an aftereffect of his time serving an engineer in the U.S. Navy in the 1980s.

Bill’s doctor started him on antibiotics and steroids, but as time progressed, the disease got worse. “The doctor told me, ‘There is no cure for this,’” said Bill. “‘It will keep eating away at your lungs.’

In 2021, Bill’s left lung collapsed, and doctors had to relieve the pressure on his lung. Then, the next year, the same thing happened to Bill’s right lung. “After that,” he said, “I was on oxygen 24 hours a day, and I had to stop working,”

He was receiving treatment at the Veterans Administration hospital near where he lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, but when his doctors told him he needed a double lung transplant, he also learned there were only three VA hospitals that performed lung transplants. Bill chose the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin—and he later learned, he said, that it was the best out of the three.

He received the gift of life in January 2023, but when he woke up from the surgery, he found out his lungs were so far gone that the transplant process had destroyed his kidneys. His months-long recovery was long and difficult—but it was just a little better because of the care he received at University Hospital in Madison and at the VA hospital. “They’ve all done a lot for me,” he said.

While he was recovering in a hotel in Madison, Bill connected with several current and former transplant patients, and he developed a network of people whom he could mentor and share his experiences with.

Fortunately, Bill qualified under the “Safety Net” policy, and he was thrilled to receive the gift of life yet again with a kidney transplant nearly a year after his first surgery. This time, his recovery has been much easier, and he is now able to truly enjoy the fact that he can breathe without assistance.

While his construction company still exists, Bill hasn’t been able to do much with it since he went on oxygen. Now, he’s making plans to get back into commercial construction management. “Up until this point, my main focus was on getting better,” he said. “Now, I want to go back to work.”