Sajjad Khan can track the decline of his lung function by the 19 steps he used to climb to get to his second-floor apartment in Leominster, MA. At first, walking up the stairs would leave him short of breath. After a time, he had to stop once along the way to rest, then twice and eventually after every four steps. Even walking on flat surfaces became more difficult and eventually showering and dressing became an ordeal.
His primary care doctor wasn’t sure what was going on. So he referred him to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where Khan received a diagnosis in March 2020: idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). Patients with the disease have scarring of the lung tissue, which makes breathing difficult. Doctors don’t know what causes IPF.
Khan was unprepared for the news that his only hope of survival was a double lung transplant.
“I was initially frightened, I didn’t understand why there was no magic bullet medication that could help me,” said Khan, 69, a retired banker who moved to Massachusetts from Bangladesh in 1977. He soon accepted the fact that a lung transplant was his sole option.
The Brigham’s Lung Transplant Program
The Brigham and Women’s Lung Transplant Program is the largest in New England. Like other transplant programs, it maintains a wait list of patients. Patients are ranked according to criteria such as age, their lung health and coexisting medical conditions. About 60 people are on the Brigham’s lung transplant list at any given time. The average wait for transplant is about 5 months.
“Mr. Khan was getting worse and he had significant increase in his oxygen needs and developed right heart failure which put him at a high risk of dying. Consequently, he had a higher score on the transplant waitlist,” said Nirmal Sharma, MD, medical director of Brigham’s Lung Transplant Program.
Khan’s worsening health soon required care at the hospital and he was put on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (EMCO) machine. The machine did the work his lungs and heart no longer could. It removed carbon dioxide from his blood, oxygenated it, and supported the function of the right side of his heart. He was on ECMO for only a day when he got the incredible news that a pair of lungs had become available.
“My care was excellent in every respect and I will never forget my medical and surgical teams — from the doctors to the nurses and everyone else.”Sajjad Khan, double lung transplant recipient
Dr. Sharma said Khan was very lucky: It’s not unusual for transplant patients to be on ECMO for several weeks before a donor’s lungs become available. Khan’s transplant took place in August 2020, only 1 month after being placed on the transplant wait list.
Compassionate care following surgery
His six-hour operation went well and Khan remembers becoming aware several days later that his oxygen tank was missing from his hospital room. “I asked the nurse where it was and she told me I didn’t need it any more. She said my oxygen was at 100 percent,” he recounted. “It seemed like a miracle.”
He spent a month-and-and-a-half at the Brigham, and was awed by the expertise and compassion of the staff. “My care was excellent in every respect and I will never forget my medical and surgical teams — from the doctors to the nurses and everyone else,” said Khan. He was impressed with the staff’s strong listening skills and superb follow-up as he healed. They educated him about his condition, recovery and life going forward.
He was always impressed with the diversity of patients — people from many different backgrounds and all walks of life. “The staff is very generous and welcoming to everyone,” he said.
From the Brigham, Khan transitioned to Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care Cambridge for rehabilitation. He quickly regained his strength and ability to care for himself. After he returned home, a visiting nurse would check on him 3 days a week.
Life after lung transplant
After his transplant, Khan moved to Cambridge, MA, to be closer to the Brigham. The proximity gives him peace of mind. He walks a mile-and-a-half each day, visits regularly with family, keeps up with the news and dreams of traveling to Bangladesh to visit his older sister. He knows his transplant team and the rest of his caregivers made this possible.
Transplant patients like Khan are at higher risk for infection, but the vast majority can resume all their regular activities, according to Dr. Sharma. “You should generally avoid crowds. For example, you go to the mall at 11 in the morning instead of four in the afternoon. But you can live a normal life, with a little discretion,” he said.
“I will never forget the people at Brigham and Women’s who cared for me,” said Kahn. “I am blessed and grateful.”