(PHOENIX, Ariz. – April 8, 2022) – The lung transplant program at Dignity Health Norton Thoracic Institute is celebrating its 15th anniversary and a remarkable milestone of completing more than 1,000 lung transplants this April, which is also National Donate Life Month. Established at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in April 2007, the lung transplant program has quickly grown into one of the busiest in the nation with better than average wait times and strong, nationally ranked quality scores.
“The number of patients and families that we have been able to help in the last 15 years is incredibly humbling,” said Ross Bremner, MD, director of Norton Thoracic Institute at St. Joseph’s. “Not only has our team been able to provide life-saving care for an incredible number of patients, but their hard work and devotion is clearly shown in the exceptional quality scores the hospital receives each year.”
Most recently, the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients (SRTR) recognized St. Joseph’s Norton as the only center within the nation’s top-five lung transplant volume hospitals to achieve the highest possible quality marks (measured as “survival on the waitlist,” “getting a transplant faster,” and “one-year lung survival”).
The institute’s expertise and compassion has attracted patients from around the world, including Manuelita Jaramillo of New Mexico.
Jaramillo was the program’s second lung transplant recipient and, 15 years later, is a living testament to the Norton team’s tenacity and dedication to its patients. Jaramillo and her husband, Tony Jaramillo, had their retirements turned upside down in 2005 when she was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.
As her condition worsened over a span of two years, doctors explained to the couple that she was on borrowed time and needed to consider a double lung transplant. Lucky for the Albuquerque resident, a new program was just getting started at St. Joseph’s in nearby Phoenix.
“We had to be listed at two different hospitals. She went through an evaluation at St. Joseph’s, but they weren’t certified to start the surgeries yet,” recalled Tony. “Lucky for us, or maybe it was divine intervention, they got the certification pretty quickly. They called to tell us that Manuelita had been approved as a candidate and placed on the transplant list at St. Joseph’s on the same day that our first grandchild was born.”
Just ten days after being listed in 2007, the Jaramillo family upended their lives again and rushed to Phoenix for the lifesaving operation. Lung transplants are among the most complicated surgical procedures, requiring precise, to-the-minute planning and meticulous life-long care.
“There have been many bumps along the way, but I remain faithful and positive,” said Jaramillo, 70, who was the program’s second patient. “They told us that many lung transplant patients don’t make it past five years, and we are fifteen years out now and even celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary last year. We are incredibly blessed by the people we continue to meet on this journey and by our six grandkids who keep us busy.”
Opposed to months or years at other centers, the average wait time for a pair of donor lungs at Norton Thoracic Institute is about two weeks, explained Rajat Walia, MD, pulmonologist and medical director of the institute’s lung transplant program.
In all, the program has performed more than 1,000 lung transplants for patients from more than 35 different states and seven foreign countries ranging in age from 15 to 79 years old. The program’s pulmonology team also cares for approximately 1,000 post-transplant patients. Prior to the launch of St. Joseph’s program, many Arizona lung transplant candidates had to travel to California for the complex procedure.
“Over the last 15 years, we’ve transplanted a Pulitzer prize-winning photographer, physicians, runners, artists and musicians, cowboys, high school students, educators, parents and grandparents. One woman even went on to hike the Grand Canyon for the first time. For all of us, lung transplantation is not just a job or a service, it’s a passion,” says Michael Smith, MD, surgical director of the institute’s lung transplant program.
The first lung transplant in the US was performed in 1963, and the first double lung transplant was performed in Toronto in 1986. Currently, nearly 1,100 people nationwide are listed and awaiting a life-saving lung transplant. To learn more about registering as an organ donor, visit Donate Life Arizona online at dnaz.org.
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