For transplant recipient, season marks 25 years of gratitude


November 25, 2015

Longest living lung transplant recipient is thankful for her donor every single day.


Pam Smith faces Thanksgiving with mixed emotions. On the one hand, she is celebrating a life that was uncertain 25 years ago. On the other, she knows that the transplant donor family who made her second chance possible face the holidays with the anniversary of their own loss.

The Athens, Tenn., woman is the longest surviving single-lung transplant patient in the United States and the second known in the world. She says she thinks about the donor family all the time.

“I am just so thankful for the second chance,” said Smith, 51. “As I am being thankful for the years the good Lord has given me, they are grieving. For me, each day is my gift.”

Smith admits she did not think she would see this milestone.

“It’s tough to look that far out,” said Smith. “They gave me four to five years to live after my transplant. So when I reached the five-year mark, then 10, then 15…

“You learn to take it one day at a time. There were some tough days when I felt really bad. The thought runs through your mind – is it going to get worse? But I always bounced back. I just look forward to however many years God gives me.”

The Vanderbilt Transplant Center team performed its first lung transplant in 1990.

Smith was the program’s fourth. Diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension, a rare lung disorder caused by an elevated blood pressure within the pulmonary arteries, Smith was first listed for a double-lung/heart transplant. But after nearly a year on the list, her doctors moved her to the single-lung transplant list.

Three months later she got the call.

“Dr. (James) Loyd would periodically call and check on me,” recalled Smith. “When he called the day after Thanksgiving asking when I last ate and what I ate, it never dawned on me that he was calling because of my lung.

“When he told me he thought they had a lung for me, I was kind of cool and all on the phone until I hung up. Then I cried. We made it to Nashville in two hours that night.”

Although Smith had a single-lung transplant, standard therapy for most PAH patients today is a double-lung transplant, which was not available until 1994.

Single-lung transplantation for PAH was considered a “radical medical concept” in 1990, according to James Loyd, M.D.,professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt.

Her longevity is extraordinary, transplant experts say.

“Pam is our hero, for her careful manner in which she has managed her own medical problems, while simultaneously inspiring dozens of other patients throughout the years,” Loyd said.

Mark Steele, M.D., medical director of the lung transplant program at Vanderbilt, is one of Smith’s physicians.

“I’ve taken care of about 1,500 lung transplant patients in my career and she is the only one who has survived this long,” Steele said. “She carries a lot of that success on her shoulders. She has done exceptionally well and is very good about asking questions and staying on top of her health.”

Since the first lung transplant, Vanderbilt’s program has performed more than 400 of the procedures and is set for a record-setting year in 2015. A record 26 lung transplants have been performed, with six patients on the waiting list at Vanderbilt.

Jessica Pasley is an information officer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center. This post was adapted from an article first published in the VUMC Reporter.


Learn more about lung transplantation.

Learn more about how to become an organ donor.