Stanford Hospital & Clinics Performs 500th Lung Transplant

Patsy Nix gains a new lease on life and Stanford celebrates a major milestone


Ashley Georgian
(650) 725-6625

From the moment she took a breath in the Stanford Hospital & Clinics recovery room, 65-year-old Patsy Nix knew that her newly transplanted lungs were working. That first breath, she said, “was a miracle.” What she didn’t know was that her transplant was far more than a personal landmark. Hers was the 500th lung transplant for Stanford, where a team lead by cardiothoracic surgeon, Bruce Reitz, completed the world’s first successful heart- lung transplant in 1981.

Before Nix’s transplant, every breath was an effort, hampered by lungs stiffened and scarred by idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.  “It was like an elephant sitting on my chest,” Nix said. Even with the aid of oxygen, the simple act of walking from one room to another was impossible.  When her local doctors told her that a transplant was the only option left to her, she was shocked. “Transplants happen to other people. I always thought they would be able to give me a pill that would make me better,” she said.

From the moment she took a breath in the Stanford Hospital & Clinics recovery room, 65-year-old Patsy Nix knew that her newly transplanted lungs were working. That first breath, she said, "was a miracle." What she didn't know was that her transplant was far more than a personal landmark. Hers was the 500th lung transplant for Stanford.

By September, Nix was so sick that Stanford moved her quickly to the top of the waiting list. In October, the phone call came. “It was hard knowing that someone had to have passed away to give me the lungs,” Nix said. As soon as she woke up after the six-hour surgery, she could feel the difference. "I had never smelled air that clean." Now she is walking every day, rebuilding her physical strength. Soon, she hopes to be able to return home to Lompoc in Southern California, and spend time with her 16 grandchildren.

Only a handful of the 80 lung transplant centers in the U.S. and Canada have performed as many lung transplants; Stanford has averaged about 50 lung transplants annually, which places it in the top 10 percent of centers by volume. Its team also performs more heart-lung transplants than any other center in the nation each year.

“A milestone like this gives you the chance to look back on the efforts that have gone on here for a long time,” said David Weill, MD, medical director of Stanford’s Lung and Heart-Lung Transplant program since 2006. “I think about all the people we’ve helped and about the level of commitment shown by our team to get that done.”

One of the innovations Weill implemented after his arrival was the Center for Advanced Lung Disease, a program specifically focused on patients whose conditions are so serious that they can lead to transplants. “The approach is still unusual but is gradually being adopted at other transplant centers,” Weill said. Treating patients earlier can help avoid transplant; it can also mean more successful transplants. Stanford’s transplant programs are also involved in clinical trials to test new ways to predict and avoid the most common and feared phenomenon, chronic rejection of the transplanted organ. Weill is also chair of the Scientific Council on Pulmonary Transplantation for the International Society for Heart & Lung Transplantation, working to create a standardized protocol for patient selection.

Reitz, who recently retired from active practice at Stanford, was chosen to perform the first heart-lung surgery by Norman Shumway, MD, PhD, the Stanford heart surgeon who made history by completing the first successful adult heart transplant in the U.S. in 1968. Reitz had long been part of transplant research in Shumway’s lab and was already an experienced physician, but the challenge of the lung was unique. Unlike other transplanted organs, it is directly exposed to outside air and bacteria after recovery through the normal act of breathing. Lungs remain the least often transplanted organ, representing only 4 percent of all types of organ transplants. Fewer than 2,000 lung transplants are performed on average each year.

Caron Burch, MSN, Stanford’s program manager for lung and heart-lung transplant programs, has more than 20 years of experience working with transplant patients and has seen many procedural changes take place outside the operating room. Computers, special algorithms and the Web now help manage the complicated system of connecting organs with patients and health care teams.  Being able to send images in digital form also speeds the sharing of important information once delayed by the need to physically transport X-ray films. New forms of imaging have also made it easier to know more about the potential transplant organs. Histological compatibility—tissue and blood matching—has also improved vastly, based on research into antibodies that once could threaten a transplant. “Now we can look at specific, complicated immunology,” Burch said. “We can do virtual cross-matches to assure compatibility, which means we don’t have to send blood  across the country.”

All Nix knows is that she can breathe again. She has some strict rules to live by that regulate what she eats, when she eats, how much exercise she does and when she takes medications—but she doesn’t mind. “You don’t go through all of this not to do what they tell you,” she said. “I’ve truly been blessed. It’s a happy ending—and that’s what keeps me looking forward.”

About Stanford Hospital & Clinics
Stanford Hospital & Clinics, located in Palo Alto, California with multiple facilities throughout the region, is internationally renowned for leading edge and coordinated care in cancer, neurosciences, cardiovascular medicine, surgery, organ transplant, medicine specialties and primary care. Stanford Hospital & Clinics is part of Stanford Medicine, which includes Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford and the Stanford University School of Medicine. Throughout its history, Stanford has been at the forefront of discovery and innovation, as researchers and clinicians work together to improve health, alleviate suffering, and translate medical breakthroughs into better ways to deliver patient care. Stanford Hospital & Clinics: Healing humanity through science and compassion, one patient at a time. For more information, visit:

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