May 7, 2024

A team approach to care 

LSU baseball fan sporting a new set of lungs after VUMC transplant

Chris Letendre (photo by Erin O. Smith)

As he stepped up to the mound to throw the first pitch at a recent Vanderbilt-LSU baseball game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, it all came full circle for Chris Letendre. 

The event reunited him with his doctor in Louisiana, a Vanderbilt University alum, who referred him to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for the lung transplant that would save his life. It brought him together with the Vanderbilt Commodores baseball team, reminding him of the time he spent so critically ill at VUMC, a few minutes’ walk from Hawkins Field. And it didn’t hurt that his beloved LSU Tigers were there as well, playing the game that he loved. 

“It made me think about the whole experience,” Chris said. “Vanderbilt saved my life. I wouldn’t be here.” 

Chris’ local hospital, a sponsor of the game, invited him to throw the first pitch, and he was introduced over the loudspeakers as a lung transplant recipient. Without that lifesaving transplant, he wouldn’t have been there, said his doctor, Hollis (Bud) O’Neal, MD, MSc, associate professor of Medicine at LSU Health Sciences Center, who received his undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt. O’Neal returned to Vanderbilt after medical school at LSU for Pulmonary and Critical Care training and received a Master of Clinical Investigation degree. 

Chris, 59, of Ruston, Louisiana, was healthy and active before coming down with COVID-19 in August 2021. He had recently retired from the U.S. Army after 32 years of service, including multiple combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after four months of rehab after contracting COVID, he was dependent on oxygen and had difficulty moving around. 

In February 2022, he was admitted to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, where O’Neal discovered severe structural abnormalities in his lungs. Chris remembers feeling despair, thinking his quality of life would never get better.  

“I didn’t even know that lung transplant was a possibility,” he said. 

But O’Neal did, and he suggested it. He referred Chris to the Vanderbilt Transplant Center.  

Chris and Catherine Letendre (photo by Erin O. Smith)

“His emotional level was so low, he had no hope,” Chris’ wife, Catherine, recalled. “When O’Neal told him about the possibility of a transplant, we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘I didn’t know that existed, but if it’ll give us any quality of life, we’ve got to try.’ 

“From that point on, there was hope.” 

By March, he was on a ground ambulance traveling to Vanderbilt, then a helicopter after the ambulance broke down in Alabama. Troubles aside, Chris had a feeling of calm. He felt like a set of lungs was coming with his name on them, particularly after meeting his medical team at VUMC. 

“Vanderbilt had made me feel that comfortable, that I just wasn’t worried.” 

In July 2022 Chris received a double lung transplant at Vanderbilt. 

“Mr. Letendre is really a testament to the benefits of having strong relationships between different academic institutions,” said Chris’ pulmonologist, Ciara Shaver, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Medicine.

“Mr. Letendre and his family bravely moved up to Tennessee and placed their trust in us to continue the excellent care he had in Louisiana. We were delighted to help him through his transplant and recovery.” 

Chris spent so much time in the hospital, he became better known by his nickname, “Sarge.” His grandkids gave him that name because he retired from the Army as Sergeant First Class, and soon everybody started saying it. Doctors, nurses and everyone else became family. 

“This place is amazing,” Catherine said. “Every aspect of our stay here, from the janitors to the top dogs, was amazing.” 

“You could just tell how much they care,” Chris added. “It’s just incredible.” 

These days, Chris is back to living a normal life. He’s still recovering his physical strength after more than 200 days in multiple hospitals, but his lung function is much improved. He can do things like throw first pitches at ballgames. 

Chris’ mind goes back to that April day. He recalls standing by the Vanderbilt baseball dugout, waiting to go out to the mound, and Coach Tim Corbin approached him. “Are you the guy who was at Vanderbilt?” Chris recalls the coach asking. “Yes,” Chris said. And they struck up a conversation. 

 “It was a big moment for me,” Chris recalled, “talking to a coach of his character.” 

When Chris isn’t cheering on his LSU Tigers, he said, he’ll be rooting for the Vanderbilt Commodores.