MADISON (WKOW) — A 28-year-old woman received a new lease of life thanks to a double lung transplant she received at University Hospital after a 10-month medical ordeal.
Darlene Johnson of Rockford, Illinois, finally left the hospital last month and was able to keep a promise she made to herself.
“I made it my goal to get home in time to celebrate my daughter’s third birthday in July,” Darlene said. “There were definitely days when I didn’t think I would make it, days when I’m sure no one thought I would make it. So to walk out of the hospital with my husband by my side after everything we’ve been through was really special.”
Johnson’s journey began in September 2021 when she and her husband, Lincoln, contracted COVID-19. Her husband got better, but Darlene, who was 37 weeks pregnant at the time, only got worse.
She was admitted to UW Health Swedish-American Hospital in Rockford on Sept. 15, and Darlene’s doctors decided to deliver her baby three weeks early, hoping it would give her a better chance to fight off a worsening lung infection.
Unfortunately, just after spending a day with her new baby girl, Hazel, Darlene became very ill and was transferred to the hospital’s intensive care unit.
Hazel could be home in a few days, and Lincoln was standing in the hospital parking lot with their daughter in his arms, waving to Darlene, who was watching from the window.
Darlene said that was one of the last things she remembers from that time. She soon lost the ability to breathe on her own, and over the next few weeks, both of her lungs collapsed.
On October 26th, a little over a month since it all began, the doctors told Lincoln that he and his daughters should come say goodbye, as they were convinced she would not make it through the night.
It was the first time the Johnson family had been together since Hazel was born. Staff helped the family make keepsakes for the girls, including colored handprints of the family and a recording of Darlene’s heartbeat.
They also took what Lincoln believed to be their first and last family photo together.
“It wasn’t meant to be,” Lincoln said. “We were supposed to grow old together, create a family and live our lives. The thought of having to raise our girls without Darlene broke me.”
That night, friends and family held prayer vigils outside Darlene’s hospital room and in her hometown, which Lincoln said lifted their spirits.
But Darlene made it through the night and even began to improve.
However, her condition began to deteriorate again, and once again Lincoln and their daughters came to the hospital to say goodbye. And once again, Darlene made it through the night.
Even with these “miracles,” doctors Darlene and Lincoln, a third-year medical student, knew her lungs wouldn’t last long.
But all the hospitals they approached, both local and national, that could have made Darlene strong enough for the lung transplant she needed to live, turned her case down.
All but UW Health in Madison.
Dr. Erin Lowery, a transplant pulmonologist at UW Health, remembers the night she first heard about Darlene’s case.
“I got home from work really late and I got a voicemail from a doctor I know in Rockford,” Lowery said. “At the time, we were in the midst of a very intense outbreak of COVID-19, so these kinds of calls weren’t necessarily that rare, but there was something about it that interested me. Although it was very late, I called Darlene’s husband that evening and heard their family’s story. I knew we had to help her.”
Lowry consulted with her colleague, Dr. Dan McCarthy, a cardiothoracic surgeon at UW Health who at the time had experience and a reputation for saving patients with the most severe cases of COVID-19. Together, they decided to take on her case and send Darlene to Madison on a UW Health Med flight.
“When we first met Darlene, I thought the chances of her making it through were slim,” McCarthy said. “Honestly, I think the odds of her not getting away with it were much higher.”
Shortly after arriving at University Hospital, Darlene was placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, which managed Darlene’s lung function while a team of UW Health doctors, nurses and specialists worked over the next four months to help her survive and strengthen her lungs for transplant surgery. and the subsequent complex recovery.
“I had so many wonderful nurses, doctors and staff working with me while I was there,” Darlene said. “I had to go through so many therapies to get strong enough to get on the transplant waiting list. I had to relearn how to sit, stand, walk, write and breathe. I had to learn to eat and swallow again. Everyone there was invested in my recovery.”
A few months later, Darlene finally qualified for a lung transplantation and surgery are scheduled for March 2022.
Darlene said she is incredibly grateful to everyone who fought for her when she couldn’t fight for herself, and she hopes her recovery is a reminder of all the people who helped her survive: her family, friends, her community of faith and her team of health care – – that their work causes ripples in the world.
“Words cannot express how grateful I am to everyone who helped me, including the donor and their family for choosing to give me a part of themselves,” said Darlene. “I wouldn’t be here today without them.”
On July 13, 302 days after her first hospitalization, Darlene walked out of her hospital room to find a hallway lined with caregivers who knew her, cared for her and loved her.
Darlene and Lincoln drove home together, where they were finally reunited with their two daughters, Josie and Hazel, three days ahead of Darlene’s goal.