Frank Coburn, 57, had trouble breathing for years. With previous doctors diagnosing him with asthma, no medication was helping his case. Then, in March 2020, he received more tests and was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a type of interstitial lung disease.
This was unfortunate news for Coburn, who said he soon discovered that people only have about two to five years to live after such a diagnosis. In the coming months, Coburn’s oxygen levels significantly decreased and he had to be connected to oxygen part-time.
Last December Coburn contracted COVID-19, which made matters worse.
“Once I got COVID, literally within 24 hours I was hooked on my oxygen full time, because I couldn’t keep my oxygen levels above about 90,” Coburn told The Epoch Times. “I’d have these coughing spasms that would last for anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half, where it was really, really bad.
“Several times in the middle of the night when I’d be downstairs coughing, I wondered if my wife would come down and find me dead on the floor. Getting close to death … it’s daunting to say the least.”
Coburn said his pulmonologist, who had originally diagnosed his pulmonary fibrosis, had really pushed his insurance company to send him to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles because of its lung transplant program.
That, Coburn said, changed everything.
“He believed firmly that I needed to be in [Cedars-Sinai’s] lung transplant program, and I’m so thankful,” he said. “I can tear up when I think about how thankful I am for several people along the way, but this doctor was one that really pushed to make sure that I got out to Cedar-Sinai.”
Coburn underwent numerous tests in February to determine whether he would qualify for a lung transplant. After learning he qualified, Coburn on March 10 he was put on the lung transplant list.
By March 15, he received a call that a pair of lungs was available from a donor.
His surgery was performed March 16, with his surgeon ultimately deciding to proceed with a new minimally invasive technique that had been developed in Germany. It was the first time the procedure was completed in the United States.
“A typical lung transplant is done through a clamshell incision with or without support from a heart/lung machine,” Coburn’s surgeon, Dr. Pedro Catarino, told The Epoch Times. “Frank’s operation was done through bilateral mini-thoracotomies without any support from a heart lung machine.
“The mini-thoracotomy technique is technically demanding and requires special minimally invasive instruments,” He said. Catarino is the director of aortic surgery in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai.
The surgeon said the new minimally invasive technique will now be the default at Cedars-Sinai, though some patients will still need a larger incision.
He said Coburn was a good candidate for the surgery due to his good health prior to contracting lung disease.
“We think this technique will really benefit older, more frail, patients who might otherwise have struggled after a standard lung transplant,” Catarino said.
According to Coburn, the decision was made on the surgery table to use the new technique. He only realized a few days later, when he emerged from the fog of surgery and looked down and wondered where his incisions were. They were so small they were hard to spot, he said.
Coburn also said he’s beyond thankful to the donor and their family for giving him the gift of life, and the ability to continue being with his wife of 30 years and his two daughters.
“I was always a donor before, but boy, this really brought it home just what it means and how big of a deal it is,” he said. “I was just one person that this donor helped live, you know? Their heart probably helped somebody else, and their eyes could have saved somebody else’s eyesight; it’s just an amazing thing.”
Not only does he feel lucky to have the new lungs, but Coburn said the team at Cedars-Sinai, from the surgeon to the nursing crew to the support staff, all did a phenomenal job.
Coburn said that life after surgery has been good, and that the biggest change for him is being able to take full deep breaths again without enduring a coughing spasm.
“I can breathe better than I did 20 years ago,” he said.