Miracle on Friday the 13th

By Observer Upload April 15, 2013 12:45 pm


Bob and Betsy Nelson, with their faithful service dog Violet, pose for their portrait in the backyard of their home in Cove. Betsy is now breathing much easier after having received a double-lung transplant. Chris Baxter/The Observer
Bob and Betsy Nelson, with their faithful service dog Violet, pose for their portrait in the backyard of their home in Cove. Betsy is now breathing much easier after having received a double-lung transplant. Chris Baxter/The Observer

Betsy and Bob Nelson of Cove mark anniversary of Betsy’s double-lung transplant 

by Kelly Black/Observer correspondent

At 6 a.m., Bob Nelson heard an ambulance siren. He walked out of the surgery waiting area at the University of Washington Medical Center and looked down toward ER. Medics in scrubs were wheeling an ice chest on a gurney from an ambulance toward the surgery wing where his wife and a team of surgeons were waiting. Betsy Nelson was in desperate need of a double lung transplant.

Outside the body, lungs typically last a maximum of six hours. Organ donation is a well-orchestrated event involving many parties on a tight deadline.

Betsy, of Cove, had been on the lung transplant list for a year. 

In October 2010, a leading pulmonologist at the University of Washington, Dr. Ganesh Raghu had told Betsy, “Your lungs are destroyed.”

Diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis brought on by exposure to mold, Betsy was told that without a transplant she would probably die in two to three years. She was 62 years old.

In January 2011, her health took a nosedive. Bob and Betsy returned to the University of Washington for a week of testing before she was accepted onto the transplant list for double lungs. 

The Nelsons bought a fifth wheel, relocated to Seattle and waited. 

For a successful organ transplant, many characteristics must match between donor and recipient including blood type and organ size. Some people find a match in a week. Others wait two to three years. The Nelsons had several friends die waiting for a match.

Even with a donor designation on your driver’s license, grieving family members can thwart a potential organ donation.  Bob encourages people who want to be donors to discuss their wishes with their families now.

“Talk to your family now in the comfort of your own home,” said Bob. “Two a.m. in a hospital waiting room is not the time to have the conversation.”

Organ donation occurs only after all life saving efforts have been exhausted and a person is declared legally dead. With the support of the family, the United Network for Organ Sharing, which is under contract with the federal government will manage the organ transplant. UNOS will begin to identify potential recipients based on geographical location, medical urgency, organ size, blood type, tissue match and time spent waiting. A donor can give up to seven organs plus tissue to various recipients.

Although Betsy was doing rehab every day, working to keep her stamina up and her weight at an optimum level, the amount of oxygen she needed to survive was exponentially climbing. A 2-foot tall oxygen E-tank would last just 35 to 40 minutes.

Then Betsy’s health began to deteriorate rapidly. The surgeon told the Nelsons she had one to two weeks left to live. 

“I was sensing she was getting close to the end,” said Bob.

They began to wonder, should they go home to be with family?

Help is on the way

The phone call finally came. The Nelsons were told, “There might be a match. Come to the hospital for x-rays.”

It was Thursday, April 12, 2012.

Betsy’s doctor, Dr. Michael Mulligan, director of the Lung Transplant Program at the University of Washington, performs 40 to 50 lung transplants a year. Dr. Mulligan has trained a fellow surgeon to perform the lung retrieval from the donor. All potential recipients have to be in surgery rooms waiting, before surgeons retrieve organs from the donor.

So Betsy and Bob waited in ICU.

At 3 a.m., the medical staff kicked Bob out of pre-op. He said goodbye to his wife of 42 years.

At 5:30 a.m., someone called down to the waiting room to say the lungs were on the ground in Seattle. 

At 6 a.m., the lungs arrived at the hospital, but still had to be evaluated for any potential damage sustained during transport. 

Bob had been told the surgery could take up to seven hours.  His son was en-route from Beaverton.

At 8 a.m., the lungs were in place in Betsy’s body. 

At 9 a.m. the surgeon came out to tell Bob, “It was a match.”

It was Friday, April 13th.

Betsy counts the 13th a lucky day. The Nelsons were married on Friday, Feb. 13, 1970, and their son was born on the 13th. Betsy got a second chance at life on Friday the 13th.

The Nelsons are celebrating Betsy’s one-year “transplantiversary.”  

Recently at the Oregon Coast, Betsy walked one mile up the beach and back. She is back to sewing, knitting, canning and enjoying visits with her 14-year-old granddaughter. 

Betsy must take anti-rejection medications and special vitamins for the rest of her life. She cares for her new lungs by avoiding dust, new construction and sick people. 

Bob volunteers with Donate Life Northwest speaking at Rotary and Lions clubs in La Grande, Hermiston, Baker City and Salem about the organ donation process. 

“A year ago she was dying,” said Bob. 

Today Betsy wears a pin that reads, “I contain recycled parts.”