Celebrating the Transplant Rehab Team That Walked With Us
On Mother’s Day in 2019, I walked into the ICU on the ninth floor of University of California, San Francisco’s Parnassus campus for the last time. It had been a month since my mom, Holly, was discharged from the hospital there after having a bilateral lung transplant.
Although I knew my mom was safe outside those ICU walls, icy adrenaline still flooded my body when I rang the doorbell to enter the unit. I had pushed that button at least 100 times during the three months my mom had spent fighting for her life. Pushing it had become a part of my everyday life.
During that time, I hadn’t ever felt like fleeing from the battle that was taking place in the ICU. So, walking in had never triggered a flight response in me before. But the trauma of those months had lingered in my subconscious mind, and my body told me it wasn’t yet time to visit again.
Just a month before that, we had rolled my mom’s wheelchair out of the double doors to the tune of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.” I’d miss the incredible staff that had saved my mom’s life, but I had no desire to ever set foot in that space again.
Yet on that particular Mother’s Day, I felt the need to celebrate more people than just my mom. If not for those who dedicated their time and energy to those long days in that wretched, beautiful, terrifying, and incredible place, I wouldn’t have a mother anymore. I needed to thank them again, with words on paper that they could read anytime they needed to. I wrote a letter and mustered the courage to return.
I hoped I’d see familiar faces when I made a solo pilgrimage to the ninth floor. There were a handful of people I especially wanted to see again and thank for my ability to celebrate Mother’s Day. At the top of the list were my mom’s physical and respiratory therapists.
These specialists might not be the first people that come to mind when thinking about the key players on a lung transplant team. But their work is crucial to maintaining a patient’s pre-transplant health and successful recovery. They deserve far more credit than they get. And because this week is National Rehabilitation Awareness Week, I wanted to show them some love.
Dr. Heidi Engel, the physical therapist who directed my mom’s pulmonary and physical rehabilitation, and her tech, Liz, were at the nurses’ station when I entered the ICU.
Without a pep talk from Heidi during a failed six-minute walk test, my mom might not have discovered her power to overcome the terror her failing lungs had generated. She may have stayed in the wheelchair where she had collapsed after five small and shaky steps into her six-minute walk test. She may have given up, and the rest of us may have let her.
But Heidi knew that getting my mom to walk for as long as she could was the only thing that would get her on the transplant list. She also knew that my mom was capable of overcoming her fear, finding her footing, and achieving the goal. She saw panic and defeat, and she calmly transformed it into confidence, trust, and strength.
Along with Heidi, Liz provided moral and physical support. She monitored my mom’s vitals and kept track of her IV pole, with all of its intertwining parts, as we walked the halls of 9ICU. Both of these women supported our family during the tough days, often taking extra time to explain how things were progressing, to encourage us, and to listen to our woes.
Our physical therapy dream team worked closely with the respiratory therapists (RTs). On each walk, an RT would join the parade down the ICU hall, pushing the ventilator and monitoring all of the gas levels. They’d tow extra oxygen tanks, keep hoses safe and unobstructed, and give feedback on lung function that helped inform the rehab process.
My mom’s well-being depended on efficient, responsive, and gentle respiratory therapists. We love all of them for the work they did to keep my mom’s fragile airways functioning until her transplant, but there were a few that we really got to know and love: Jason and Leo.
Both of these men were skilled at their jobs, but we fell in love with them as people, too. Both were thoughtful, funny, and compassionate. Leo even got my mom a present when he went on vacation to Disneyland!
This rehab team, and all of the other therapists that worked with my mom, walked beside us every step of the way — literally. From that hard first day to the first steps my mom took with her new lungs, we are so grateful for everything they’ve done.
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