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Last December, Brian Zabel walked down the University Hospital halls without needing extra oxygen assistance. It was a remarkable feat for him, considering that he had suffered from lung disease for the last several years. Brian had received the gift of life with a lung transplant, and he was flying high.
As Brian enjoyed his milestone, his doctors, nurses and other caregivers watched with knowing smiles on their faces. For them, the miracle wasn’t new — it was all in a day’s work at the UW Health Transplant Center. Brian was 900th lung transplant patient at the Madison, Wisconsin, hospital — joining scores of other patients who have experienced the joy of breathing again after struggling for so long.
Deadly diseases, life-saving transplant
The UW Health Lung Transplant Program has been saving patients’ lives for more than 30 years. Doctors perform lung transplants for both adults and children, and UW Health is one of just three programs in the nation certified to treat veterans.
There are several different conditions that can lead to lung failure, and Brian just happened to suffer from two of them. He learned late in life that he had Alpha-1antitrypsin deficiency (often referred to as “Alpha-1”), a genetic condition that can cause lung and liver damage. One of the best ways to reduce the risk for Alpha-1 is to avoid smoking.
Unfortunately, Brian was a smoker for 25 years. “The Alpha-1 attacked one side of my lungs, and emphysema that I got from smoking attacked the other side,” he said. “I was literally killing myself without even knowing it. I had the lungs of a 65-year-old when I was in my 40s.”
Brian received his Alpha-1 diagnosis in 2016, and over the next few years, his lungs grew progressively worse. At the beginning of 2022, he was hospitalized for two straight months because he had pneumothoraxes — a condition in which air accumulates outside the lung and applies pressure on it, causing it to collapse. His pulmonologist decided it was time for a transplant.
Brian made an appointment with Erin Lowery, MD, transplant pulmonologist at UW Health, and she determined he was a good candidate for a lung transplant. After he underwent all the necessary tests and evaluations, he officially went on the wait list for a new set of lungs in November 2022.
Just weeks later, Brian received his gift of life. At the time, he didn’t know he was the 900th lung transplant patient at UW Health, he just knew he was getting his second chance at life with these lungs.
The road to recovery
Those new lungs led to Brian’s surreal experience of walking down the halls without any breathing assistance. He knew there was a long road to recovery ahead of him, but he also was sure he was receiving care from the right team. “The doctors listened to what I had to say as we tried different kinds of medications to see what worked,” he said. “And if I needed help with something, the nurses helped me right away.”
After staying at the hospital for three weeks following his transplant, Brian and his girlfriend Brandy moved to Restoring Hope Transplant House in Middleton, Wisconsin, where they stayed while he continued with doctor visits and tests for the next few weeks.
Now, he’s able to walk around and play outside with his dog, a Great Pyrenees and collie mix named Joey. “Before the transplant, I was just existing,” he said. “It got to the point where I couldn’t walk 50 feet without being out of breath. Now I’m actually living again.”