Giving thanks for life after lung transplant

Michael L. Good, M.D., dean of UF College of Medicine, welcomed staff, faculty, patients and guests to the Shands at UF Lung Transplant Program's Celebration of Success event. Photo by Jesse S. Jones

She spent Thanksgiving with friends in Cedar Key that year, eating dinner and watching as a few of the men put up walls in the house being built on the land. But it was the call she received as they drove home across the Cedar Key bridge that Debbie Labud will always remember. 

After spending nearly four years on the lung transplant list, Labud’s time had finally come. 

On Nov. 22, 2001, Labud, who has a genetic condition known as alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, received a lung transplant and a second chance at life. Today, with Thanksgiving just days away, the Shands at UF Lung Transplant Program celebrates Labud’s 10-year “birthday” and all the other men and women who have received new life through lung transplantation at Shands at UF. 

“It is a second chance at life,” says Labud, now 56 and a donor recruiter for LifeSouth Community Blood Centers. “I have two birthdays now, one in February and one in November.” 

Debbie Labud, who was celebrating the eve of the 10th anniversary of her lung transplant from Shands at UF, shared her story about receiving a second chance at life. Photo by Jesse S. Jones

Labud’s November birthday this year is particularly significant, says Maher Baz, M.D., Labud’s doctor and medical director of the Shands at UF Lung Transplant Program, which was started in 1994. 

“The national average, statistic-wise, is about 20 to 25 percent (of patients reach) 10-year survival,” Baz said. “So it is a major milestone, and the significance is the risk of rejection is really low at this point in time.” 

The most common reason patients die after lung transplant is chronic rejection, a problem UF researchers from the colleges of Medicine and Engineering are tackling with the help of a $1 million grant from the state of Florida awarded to UF last year. Mark Brantly, M.D., the Alpha-1 Foundation professor of medicine and an expert on alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, is the leading researcher on that grant. 

State Sen. Steve Oelrich, an advocate for organ donation, helped UF get the funding and was one of the speakers at Monday’s Celebration for Success. Other speakers include Baz; Labud; Edward D. Staples, M.D., surgical director of the Lung Transplant Program; College of Medicine Dean Michael Good, M.D.; and John W. Walsh, president, CEO and founder of the Alpha-1 Foundation. 

State Sen. Steve Oelrich, an advocate for organ donation, was one of the speakers at the Celebration for Success event. He shared his personal experience with the crowd. Photo by Jesse S. Jones

“We are proud to see UF has a lung transplant program that is extending life, while we are working on a cure,” Walsh said. “When we created the foundation, our goal was to create infrastructure to support research and to invest in top-tier clinical scientists such as Dr. Brantly. We would have never gotten this far without the UF College of Medicine and support from the state of Florida.” 

Labud has faced only minor complications since her lung transplant 10 years ago. She takes medication to stay healthy and stave off rejection but otherwise leads a healthy life. She exercises regularly and rides her bike with Team Alpha-1, part of the Alpha-1 Foundation. 

It’s a 180-degree contrast from the way she lived her life in the years leading up to her transplant, when she spent her days tethered to an 8-pound oxygen tank and didn’t even have the energy to walk to the mailbox. 

Labud had already faced bout after bout of what doctors thought was bronchitis when she was finally diagnosed with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency in 1991. Patients with this inherited condition don’t produce enough of the alpha-1 antitrypsin protein, which protects the lungs. Eventually, alpha-1 patients develop lung disease that rapidly worsens over time, Baz said. 

By 1995, Labud could no longer work and by 1996 she was on oxygen 24 hours a day. Her lung capacity had fallen to 17 percent by the time she was placed on the transplant list and hovered around 13 percent when she actually received her transplant in 2001. 

“It feels like an elephant sitting on your chest, and you struggle trying to breathe and just to get around,” she said. “After the transplant, I got out of the ICU on Monday and was taken off oxygen Tuesday. That was so different to be able to sit up and breathe on my own. It was the most exciting thing. It is hard to explain.” 

Ten years later, Labud has a lot to be thankful for. And at the top of her list is her organ donor, a woman whose choice to donate has given Labud 10 more years with her children and grandsons and a chance to meet her granddaughter, now 6, and a new grandson, now 5. She married her fiancé in 2005, too. 

“I knew I was either going to wake up in God’s arms or wake up in my family’s arms,” she said. “And I woke up in my family’s arms.”