Testing Out a New Lung at High Elevations

Emma Schmitz avatar

by Emma Schmitz |

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The moment my parents, Diana and Jack, were in the clear two weeks after their second COVID-19 vaccine, they hopped on a plane to see their three grandchildren in Illinois. This was about a month shy of my mom’s one-year lung transplant anniversary.

Their trip was everything they had hoped for — grubby fingers, hugs, and screeches from a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, and a newborn — but it did not go without its bumps in the road.

This was last April, at the point when we thought things were starting to go back to normal. People were not wearing masks on the bus to the airport, and my mom started panicking, which subsequently started dropping her oxygen level.

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We all have those things we fear that make us lose our breath just thinking about them. Those unlikely events in which we obsess over the worst-case scenario. And the moment we start thinking about it, the thought snowballs from our brains to our throats to a pit way deep in our stomachs where it rots until the risk of our worst fears coming true has passed.

Sometimes, we’re not really sure what that fear is — can’t name it, can’t put our finger on it — but it stops our breath all the same. I know this feeling intimately, and I know my mom knows it, too.

Once on the airplane, my mom felt the panic seep in again — shortness of breath, a tightening in the chest. But this time, she had nowhere to go, so she wouldn’t let herself look at her pulse oximeter. She didn’t want to know the truth of how low her oxygen was getting on the plane because she had no backup plan available.

A week later, my parents visited my home for the first time in three years. The doctors were uncertain if staying at an altitude of 6,000 feet would affect my mom’s ability to breathe. She would have to go for it and see what happened.

I’m not the kind of daughter who wants to hang out with her parents all the time; I need my space. But after a year of not seeing them in person, I finally really felt what it was like to miss my mom and dad. Being with them during Mother’s Day weekend was a huge comfort and relief, like a cold shower on a blazing hot day.

We didn’t plan much — a few walks here, dinners out there. At night, though, my mom’s oxygen dropped to unprecedented levels post-lung transplant — levels that, as my mom noted, made her head feel like an expanding balloon.

What was she to do? She was off of oxygen, detached, unplugged, and breathing on her own. She had no backup plan for lower-than-normal levels because she had a new lung for that. Her tanks and battery-powered, portable oxygen concentrator had been taken away for someone else to use. So, she opened the windows and sucked in as much cool mountain air as she could.

Would you go back to visit a place that choked you for just being there? I wonder if her new lung is capable of adapting to 6,000 feet above the ocean on its own. She told me her doctors said to give it another try and see what happens, so that’s what we’re going to do.


Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.


Bruce S Hawn avatar

Bruce S Hawn

One of my hobbies is training stock dogs, border collies in particular and competing at sheep dog trials around the nation. I very much enjoy the trials that take place in the mountains of Colorado. Shortly after my IPV diagnosis, I left to attend one of the Colorado trials. We drove, but I never once thought about the effect of altitude on breathing. When you attend a sheep dog trial, it is usually with a camper in tow, so you can stay where the sheep are, which means generators. I use three of the small suitcase style generators. I mention this because on my arrival to the trial location (altitude 7,200 feet), I had a crash course on oxygen levels at altitude. I couldn't even carry the generators from the back of my truck to the back of my camper. Could not walk around the camper without the oxygen levels going below 88. That night even in bed, my levels never rose above 89 until the next day. Called my Dr. the next day and got chewed out, but that is another story. I stayed a full week, took it easy and by the end of the week, my ability to breathe and keep my O2 levels above 89 had significantly improved. So, based on my personal experience, I do believe that you can become acclimated to the altitude. I was even able to do small hikes (with a meter on my finger, and frequent stops when it dipped below 90). That said, I will not try that again without a portable concentrator. I don't know, if what I experienced as far as becoming acclimated to the altitude, will be the same for someone with only one good lung. I certainly hope so.

Kevin Olson avatar

Kevin Olson

Emma. Enjoyed your article. In a couple of weeks, I will have my 1-year post-lung transplant anniversary. In October, I will be flying to New York for my college 45th reunion. This will be my first time flying since transplant, and I should do ok. Last February, 6 months post-transplant, I drove from Kansas City to Phoenix. During my drive, I went from 1,000 to 7,500 and back to 1,000 ft. My wife and I stayed overnight in Albuquerque at an altitude of 5,000 feet. I had no problem breathing. In Oct 2019 pre-transplant, I visited Albuquerque for a few days. Before going, I only used oxygen while walking. Because of Albuquerque's altitude, I had to O2 all the time. Best wishes to your mother and yourself.

Thomas Adams avatar

Thomas Adams

Kevin, you are the same age as me. I was diagnosed with IPF last summer and underwent an open-lung biopsy in August, 2021 to confirm the preliminary diagnosis. The only silver lining to this black cloud was that the disease seemed to be stable with little fibroblast activity. I am due for my 1-year CT scan and pulmonary function test in October to check my progress after 1-year. I am currently on oxygen (3-4 ml) pretty much 24/7 and not taking any anti-fibroid medications. While a lung transplant is hopefully not in my near future, it remains a possibility down the road. My question to you... would you do the transplant again? Was yours a single or double lung transplant. Once the time comes that I may be faced with that decision, I hope to visit with others that have already been through it and make an informed decision about what I should do. Thanks in advance for reading my email and hopefully you can provide me with some feedback on your experience.

Gail Size avatar

Gail Size

I am in the same situation facing a double lung transplant. I would l love to know from all of you who have been transplanted if you do it again or suggest we who are are oxygen 27/7 to go forward with the transplant


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