When David Ludwig, 28, checked into a community hospital in Long Beach, CA, last June for a preventive course of antibiotics and respiratory therapy, he thought he was getting what many cystic fibrosis (CF) patients call a “tune up.” What he actually got was an infection.
Such infections can be deadly for CF patients, and David’s condition quickly went from bad to worse. He developed sepsis and struggled to breathe.
And then his lung collapsed. That’s all he remembers for several weeks.
David’s doctors told his parents there was one final shot to save his life — he needed a lung transplant, and he needed it soon.
“There was no time to think, no time to shop for facilities or doctors,” says David’s mom, Norma. David was transferred to Keck Medical Center of USC on his doctor’s recommendation, even though the family didn’t know the USC doctors and had never been to the hospital.
The Right Place at the Right Time
Upon arrival at Keck Medical Center, David was whisked away by a team of nurses and physicians. A member of the housekeeping staff, Mary Beasley, instantly recognized the look of fear on Norma’s face, and sat Norma and her husband Steven down in the lobby and brought a doctor out to discuss what was happening with their son.
“Everyone there, starting with the housekeeping staff, treated us like we were human beings,” recalls Norma. “What we were going through mattered to them.” She quickly felt they had chosen the right hospital.
David’s lung function was so poor that for two weeks before his transplant, physicians used extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) — a procedure that uses a machine to oxygenate the blood and remove carbon dioxide in place of the lungs.
David received his new lungs three weeks after being admitted, and remained in the hospital for several weeks afterwards. During that time, he experienced a series of common complications, including a bout of delirium — a temporary disorder that affects up to 80 percent of all intensive-care patients — and kidney failure, another common complication among CF patients after undergoing lung transplant.
And, yet, Norma Ludwig, who calls herself a “hospital mom” because of the amount of time she has spent in hospitals with her son, says she felt a strange calm throughout David’s hospitalization.
“I just knew the people there were taking really good care of him,” she says. She was impressed that a volunteer would sit with him at night because he would sometimes awake scared and agitated.
She also felt that she was being taken care of in a different way. The entire hospital staff, she says, made the stressful experience easier by treating her with an extraordinary mix of kindness and professionalism.
After her first day, the lobby staff knew her by name and knew why she was there. The USC Transplant Institute team deftly and swiftly processed reams of paperwork to ensure that David was on a transplant list. The cafeteria staff greeted her warmly every day and made gentle inquiries about David’s health. The hospital chaplain spent a lot of time by her side.
And when it came to the medical staff, she said their exemplary skills in saving her son were matched by the kindness with which they treated her.
“They saved his life and the thing that amazed me is that they did it really nicely,” says Norma, adding that she has spent enough time in hospitals to know how unique this personal touch was.
And so while they were anxious to get David home, when the time came to say goodbye to the intensive care unit, it was “bittersweet” because Norma said they had come to see the staff as family.
A New Beginning
Months after his transplant, David is home completing physical therapy to regain muscle strength lost while bedridden.
He is also getting used to his new lungs. After a lifetime of feeling like he was breathing through a straw, he is now taking deep, clear breaths.
And he is contemplating what to do with a gift he never expected to receive — a long, healthy life.
“Most cystic fibrosis patients don’t make to their 30s,” says David. “It’s kind of scary to think about being an adult for the first time. But, I am really happy to be breathing.”
– Hope Hamashige