A Transplant in Isolation

John McDonald is reunited with his wife, Lisa, after a lung transplant.
Lisa Gabriel is reunited with her husband, John McDonald, after his double lung transplant. story by Celia Spell, photo by Lauren Hooker

May 1 was the first time John McDonald was able to see his wife Lisa Gabriel since 18 days after he was first transferred to MUSC. He was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in January after a CT of his abdomen fortuitously showed something of concern in the lower lobe of his lungs.

By April, his lungs were failing. Rapidly.

On April 11, McDonald was started at 40% oxygen. Two days later, he required 100% oxygen and was brought to MUSC.

But with the prevalence of COVID-19, hospitals across the country have had to limit the number of visitors inside their facilities. “When he was transferred, a nurse called me and asked me if I could come to the hospital,” said Gabriel. “I was excited to be able to visit him – and kind of surprised, too – since hospitals weren’t allowing visitors.”

It wasn’t until she was driving down to Charleston from their home in Myrtle Beach that she received the second call asking how quickly she could get there.

“That’s when I realized how serious it was,” she said.“We were really lucky to get here when we did,” Gabriel said. “If it had been a day later, it would have been a different scenario.”

They met with the transplant team to discuss his options just before his breathing became so labored that he was placed on a ventilator.

Thoracic Surgeon Chadrick Denlinger, M.D., performed McDonald’s transplantation. He said McDonald was a transplant candidate because, even with fibrosis, he was living a relatively normal life until just a few weeks ago. 

“He’s very strong, both physically and mentally. And even though he was requiring significant support and 100% supplemental oxygen when I first met him, he was still able to understand the risks and benefits of surgery. We luckily had the opportunity to discuss multiple potential outcomes if he required intubation even before we were able to complete the transplant evaluation,” he said.

However, once the couple decided to move forward with the procedure, McDonald was moved to a different unit, and his wife was no longer able to be with him in the hospital. Rather quickly, a donor became available, and Denlinger performed the transplant on April 21.

One day later, McDonald no longer required the support of ECMO, the machine that circulated his blood through an artificial lung and back into his bloodstream. Three days later, he was breathing on his own – without the help of a ventilator. Throughout the ordeal, he never saw his family.

The first thing McDonald did after being taken off the ventilator was to ask to FaceTime his wife. “It was so important to me to stay in touch with my family,” he said.

“At 6:30 a.m., he called me via FaceTime, and I heard his voice again. It was a miracle. I was so excited, thankful and overwhelmed with relief,” adding that it was the FaceTime sessions that made the situation bearable. 

Gabriel said she won’t soon forget the constant support and encouragement they both received. “I cannot tell this story enough and give enough praise and thanks to the team of doctors, nurses and support staff who saved John’s life. There are a lot of doctors in the world, but it takes a special team of people to have compassion and show the true love for what they do.” “They saved his life. And we are so grateful.”