April 21, 2014

Medina
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Breath of relief after double lung transplant

Elizabeth Kuhr | The Gazette

Relaxing after her granddaughter’s birthday party, Debbie Wallhead noticed the clock flashing 2:30 a.m.

It was Jan. 15, 2012, and she wanted to attend church in the morning. She reached over, shut off the light and tried to settle in. But within minutes, her phone rang – the call marked the start of a long journey toward survival.

Debra Wallhead, a double lung transplant survivor, sits with her husband, Mark. She celebrated her 18-month anniversary of her transplant on July 15. (GAZETTE PHOTO BY KRISTIN BAUER)

“I think we have lungs for you,” said a representative from the Cleveland Clinic.

Having waited a mere two months and four days for a pair, Wallhead, 59, was in shock. She carefully wrote down the details about her double lung transplant, which was scheduled for several hours later.

“The doctors told us that morning that the lungs donated were a perfect match for Debbie,” said the Elyria woman’s husband, Mark Wallhead, who explained that, by that point, Wallhead’s oxygen tank no longer helped her breath.

Wallhead, who works with EMH Elyria Medical Center, had been fighting for air since April 2011 when she was diagnosed with the rare disease constrictive bronchiolitis. According to Wallhead, her doctor said her lung function was at 30 percent and that she had one to two years to live without a transplant.

So, when she heard about the available lungs, Wallhead calls it a godsend.

“Everything fell into place,” she said. “The Lord’s hand was in it.”

The seven-hour procedure was risky and expensive – her husband estimates its uninsured cost at $1 million, but Wallhead’s EMH insurance covered most of it. After 13 days spent in the hospital recovering, she was deemed stable, prescribed 25 daily medications and released.

“The doctors thought I was doing superbly,” she said.

Nine days later, her health took a dive when she woke up feeling dizzy. Hours later, Wallhead was diagnosed with pancreatitis, pneumonia and a collapsed lung.

“It was the scariest moment, I’ll never forget it,” said Mark, remembering the decision to put his wife back on a ventilator to help her breath.

Despite the temporary setback, forcing her to be bedridden for four weeks, Wallhead turned to faith and the support of her work friends, who gave her their sick days and organized several fundraisers for the medical expenses, to fight on.

“All the doctors at work checked on me throughout the day,” said Wallhead, remembering when she used to struggle through one shift. “They look out for me.”

But Wallhead, working full-time again, says she’s finally feeling better than ever. At last weekend’s Relay For Life, an event she attended in a motorized scooter a year ago, Wallhead walked three miles.

Throughout her recovery, Wallhead has eagerly served as a resource for others going through transplant surgeries. Furthermore, both she and her husband, who recently became an organ donor, are now advocates for donation.

“People die waiting for organs because there aren’t enough to go around,” said Wallhead. “I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for the transplant.”

Contact reporter Elizabeth Kuhr at 328-7126 or ekuhr@chroniclet.com.