July 24, 2019

Patient who was too sick to attend daughter’s graduation recovering after double lung transplant

Bridget Perez could barely walk a few steps. Now she’s walking laps at the Dayani Center track and marveling at how it feels to breathe again.

Above: Bridget Perez pauses while walking the track at VUMC’s Dayani Center about a month after receiving a double lung transplant. Photo by Tavia Smith

Below: Staff members of the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit line the hallway applauding and high-fiving with Bridget as she goes to the operating room to receive her double lung transplant. Video courtesy Michael Daly

To view video on YouTube, go here.

In May, Bridget Perez was so sick that she couldn’t attend her daughter Jaszmon’s high school graduation.

Bridget, who had severe pulmonary hypertension caused by a fibrotic lung disease, was in Vanderbilt’s Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit (CVICU) undergoing Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) therapy, which uses a machine to support heart and lung function.

Bridget Perez, right, was in intensive care when nurses arranged to have her daughter Jaszmon’s high school graduation brought to the unit. Photo by Tavia Smith

When she told nurses in the unit about how disappointed she was to miss her daughter’s graduation, the nurses arranged to bring the ceremony into the intensive care unit. With the help of family, medical staff and Clarksville Kenwood High School officials. all the pomp and circumstance of Jaszmon’s graduation came right into to Bridget’s ICU room.

An earlier VUMC Voice story about the intensive care graduation ceremony is here.

Jaszmon received her high school diploma and she and Bridget — with the ECMO machine and ECMO nurses in tow — slowly walked a lap on the fifth floor to the applause of staff members.

That was a great moment, but it was not the end of the story.

On June 19, Bridget, 36, received a double lung transplant. At the time, she had been on ECMO for about 2½ months, a record for any patient awaiting a transplant at Vanderbilt.

Matthew Bacchetta, MD, MBA, associate professor of Thoracic and Cardiac Surgery, led the transplant team, and he was clear-eyed about the odds Bridget overcame.

“Not only was she on ECMO but she had a high antibody profile, and she’s not tall, so she had a lot of things working against her,” Bacchetta said.

“She had a rapidly progressive pulmonary fibrosis, which would have led to her demise had we not put her on ECMO. She had several strikes against her chances of getting a transplant. We knew that we needed time to find an appropriately sized donor with the right crossmatch profile and, luckily, we actually found an excellent fit for her.”

About a month after her transplant, as Bridget walked several laps around the track at the Kim Dayani Center for Health and Wellness at Vanderbilt as part of her rehabilitation, she was acutely aware of how it felt: she could breathe.

She could feel the air filling her lungs as she walked, and the experience was still so new that she was not taking it for granted.

She recalled what it felt like to wake up from the transplant surgery with new lungs. When she was gradually weaned off the ventilator, extubated, and took her first breath, it was an emotional experience.

“I was scared to breathe on my own,” Bridget said. “I was anxious and panicky, but I can now take a deep breath like I did before. I’m really starting to feel like — well, like me.”

Bridget’s mother Connie Perez recalled an earlier day in Bridget’s life that involved taking a first breath: “It was just like [the day she was born] all over again,” Connie said. “I was so excited. I cried. I was just so happy.”

As Bridget gets stronger day by day and a more normal life takes shape in her future, she reflects on her months in intensive care.

“When you are knocking on death’s door and all you have is a breathing machine to help you live, it really puts life in perspective,” Bridget said. “I want to thank everyone on the CVICU for never giving up on me, for pushing me to walk and feel stronger even on the days when I felt down and upset.  They are truly my extended family.”

UPDATE: Bridget Perez continued to have health struggles and, sadly, she died on Oct. 17, 2019. Her obituary is here.