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Two Local Men Share a Pair of Lungs from Same Donor

February 15, 2019

Meet Bob and Emanuel. Their paths likely never would have crossed, but now they share a common bond: their lungs.

They do not live in the same town, do not come from similar backgrounds, and do not even speak the same language. But Emanuel DeJesus, from Union, and Bob Denning, from Westfield, now think of themselves as brothers from another mother, ever since each man received one half of a pair of donor lungs – Emanuel the right, Bob the left – during simultaneous transplant operations at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia this past summer.

Though the men did not know each other, their path to transplant was similar. Each had suffered from lung disease for years, and their declining health prompted their physicians to recommend them for placement on the list of people waiting for donor lungs. “It’s important to get on the list well before you need the transplant, because it can be a long process,” explains pulmonologist Vincent Donnabella, MD, of Atlantic Medical Group’s Pulmonary and Allergy Associates.

Dr. Donnabella has treated Emanuel for five years, through multiple illnesses and hospitalizations and even a medically induced coma in 2016. “You want to get patients evaluated for transplant as early as possible, but also need to hold off on transplant as long as possible because the donated lungs will last only so long. Mr. DeJesus had rallied from each of his previous hospitalizations, but he was getting weaker and was on full-time oxygen. It was time.”

Meanwhile, pulmonologist Robert Restifo, DO, also of Pulmonary and Allergy Associates, had come to the same decision for Bob, whom he had been treating since 2011. “His condition had become so drastic that there was no way to put off transplant any longer,” says Dr. Restifo. “Temple University Hospital has a great program and great facilities for lung transplant. They are able to handle the most advanced lung disease, and I knew Mr. Denning would be in the most capable hands there.”

In theory, Bob, then 75, and Emanuel, 62, never should have met. While on the transplant list, Emanuel had twice received a call that a lung was available. But once at Temple, neither turned out to be viable. Bob, too, had received two calls about an available lung, neither of which resulted in a transplant. But on June 23, when the calls came in, the men and their wives raced back to Philadelphia yet again. This time, for each of them, the transplant was a go.

In the Temple University Hospital waiting room while their husbands underwent hours of surgery, Emanuel’s wife, Maria, and Bob’s wife, Carol, thought they recognized each other. Their paths had crossed at Temple months earlier, when their husbands were there for evaluation, and they struck up a conversation. They soon learned that they lived just a few towns apart and that, back home, their husbands were being treated at the same practice. Connecting the dots of time and place and happenstance, they came to realize that Emanuel and Bob were each receiving a lung from the same donor.

Road to Recovery

For Emanuel and Bob, the road to recovery post-transplant included eight weeks of rehabilitation. Prior to surgery, both men had been in touch with Overlook’s pulmonary rehabilitation coordinator, Monica Gilles, RRT, MAS, NCTTP, and while in the hospital had discovered yet another connection: They would be attending the same rehab program. Months away and miles away from their Temple University hospital rooms (they were just five doors apart from each other as they recovered from surgery), the men came together again, now back at Overlook, for pulmonary rehab to strengthen their new lungs. Bob’s session would typically follow Emanuel’s (Bob credits Gilles and “the whole crew in pulmonary rehab for going above and beyond” to fit the men into the rehab schedule), and the two men would exchange smiles and laughs and nods of encouragement. “We’re both doing well,” says Bob. “I know what he’s been through because I’ve been through it too, and it’s good to see him getting stronger and doing better.”

Looking back over the past several months, Bob also acknowledges how far he has come. “I couldn’t walk 20 feet,” he says. “I was on constant oxygen. I was so emotionally depressed that I couldn’t do anything. At night, I would almost crawl up the stairs to go to bed. I’m not yet back to what I was six years ago. But I’m moving faster than I was a year ago, and I’m getting my life back.”

Emanuel’s experience has been quite the same. “Pre-transplant, he was barely able to walk, let alone go up the stairs,” says his daughter, Jennifer. “He would walk 20 feet and would be huffing and puffing and would have to pause. Now, he’s washing dishes, sweeping the floor, going up the stairs – all things he couldn’t do before but wanted to do. We sold his car because he had no use for it; now we have to get him a car again. It’s wonderful. He was an auto-body technician for years and was always such a hard worker. He hasn’t had a vacation in his life. It would be nice if he could finally do that.”

The Gift of Life

Both men praise Gift of Life Family House for their services throughout the transplant process. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit charitable organization serves as a home away from home for transplant patients and their families by providing affordable lodging, meals and support services to those who travel to Philadelphia for transplant-related care. “What they do for families is tremendous,” says Bob. “They make everything so much better and so much easier. I can’t say enough about them.”

Nor can he say enough about the gift of life he received from the donor and the donor’s family. Years ago, in 1981, Bob was on the giving end when his first wife passed away and her eyes and heart were donated. “I know what that’s like to make that decision, and now I know what it’s like to receive this kind of a gift,” he says. “It’s a debt I’ll never be able to pay back. I have a second chance at life.”

Adds Jennifer, “We are all so appreciative. We are so sorry for the other person’s loss, but we are so thankful for what we received. It’s a gift.”

Pulmonary and Allergy Associates and Drs. Donnabella and Restifo are part of Atlantic Medical Group, a multispecialty network of health care providers.  They can be reached at 908-934-0555.