UCHealth celebrates 25 years of lung transplant success

DENVER -- Bella Wong couldn't walk a few years ago, close to death after being bedridden for five years with an incurable lung disease.

"To go from being bedridden to getting a new pair of lungs and now I'm here twice a week working out living a full life,” she said while walking on a treadmill at the University of Colorado Hospital pulmonary transplant rehab facility.

Like more than 700 people in Colorado, Bella has been given a second chance at life. That's thanks to the first lung transplant performed 25 years ago this week by doctors at the University of Colorado Hospital.

In 1992, we talked to the team of surgeons who performed the first lung transplant surgery and also interviewed the wife of the first transplant patient.

“It's pretty cool that it's 25 years for the center and it's my 20-year this last year,” said transplant patient Missy Peterson. “So that's pretty neat to me."

Peterson is also one of the patients given a second chance at UCHeath, hers in 1996. She's now a competitive organ transplant swimmer.

"We are only transplanting the sickest of patients who in my mind are weeks to months away from dying if they don't get the transplants," said Dr. Michael Weyant, who performed Bella’s surgery and is co-director of the lung transplant program.

But Weyant said 25 years later, they're still working to improve patient survival, while battling a severe lung donor shortage.

"We still have a lot of challenges regarding preventing rejection and making the organs last a long time.”

In fact, all of the patients will end up spending about three or more months in the hospital’s pulmonary rehab facility beginning this new chapter of their lives.

In Bella's case, it's meant an independence she never thought she'd see again.

"Being able to get a second chance at life with a lung transplant and being here to tell my story," she said while working on the elliptical machine, “It’s really amazing.”

Peterson echoed that gratitude.

"If it wasn't for my doctors here obviously I wouldn't be alive today," she said.

Both hope for many more years to come, happy for their second chance.