Double-lung transplant gives local man new life
Longtime local bluegrass musician Richard Wodrich loves to sing and play guitar, but that became progressively more difficult over the last decade or so, to the point where he had trouble just breathing—let alone playing music.
About four years ago, he was formally diagnosed with chronic lung disease, but that didn’t keep him down. In fact, Wodrich, 68, was singing in the choir at Bidwell Presbyterian Church on March 22, when he got a call from his wife, Marci Goulart: Doctors at UC San Francisco Medical Center had harvested lungs from an organ donor, and they had to drive there immediately for transplant surgery.
Goulart recalls that, during the drive, her husband was positive, clear-minded and fully ready for the transplant despite knowing the risks inherent in an eight-hour surgery. Wodrich’s excitement was understandable. The operation, if successful, would reverse years of decline and potentially add years to his life.
But all the while, Goulart’s mind turned to the anonymous donor’s family, she said. They were undoubtedly facing a tragedy, though Wodrich and Goulart will likely never know the circumstances of the donor’s death.
“I was thinking that this other family is having the complete opposite experience,” she said. “It was heavy.”
Seven months after the surgery and a long string of complications, Wodrich is breathing easy. But he’s not out of the woods. He’ll continue a heavy regimen of medication for the rest of his life, which isn’t cheap. Indeed, the total cost of surgery and treatment has been astronomical—approaching seven figures, Wodrich said. His insurance covered the cost of hospitalization, but not of medication or housing during six weeks of rehabilitation in San Francisco.
That’s why the couple are hosting a fundraising concert on Sunday (Nov. 8) at Chico Women’s Club. In addition to easing the financial burden, Wodrich and Goulart hope the event will promote organ donation. They know first hand that it can be a life-saver.
The root cause of Wodrich’s lung disease isn’t clear, he said. He was a smoker, but not a heavy one, and he quit many years ago. He believes working in a factory between high school and college was more harmful.
“I worked in an automotive factory where I dipped big panels into corrosive chemicals, pulled them out and sent them down the line,” he said.
In any case, Wodrich’s breathing trouble started hindering his professional life. As a representative for a media marketing research company, The Media Audit, he spent two or three weeks on the road every month, meeting clients across the country.
“I was at the point where getting off a plane, getting a rental car and going to a hotel was physically more than I could do,” he said. “I hung on and did that probably past the point I should have, just for financial reasons.”
About four years ago he received diagnoses of pulmonary fibrosis and emphysema; he retired about a year later, at age 65. At first he used oxygen only at night, when breathing slows. But his condition worsened and, starting last summer, he was tethered to an oxygen machine full-time.
By then, Wodrich had already started exploring the possibility of a lung transplant. The couple went first to Stanford University Medical Center, where he underwent four days of intensive testing including heart catheterization, X-rays, CT scans, ultrasounds, a colonoscopy, immunizations and extensive blood tests. They took those records to the lung transplant program at UCSF, and Wodrich was added to the waiting list for new lungs in June 2014.
But it got complicated. During an X-ray of his chest in Chico, doctors discovered a nodule on his lungs, and they feared it was cancer. Goulart explained that a cancer diagnosis automatically makes a patient ineligible for a transplant. In order for the body to accept a foreign object like a new organ, a patient must take medication to suppress the immune system, and that would allow cancer to spread freely. But doctors eventually determined the nodule was benign, and Wodrich was relisted in January.
The surgery itself, performed by UCSF’s Dr. Jasleen Kukreja, went off without a hitch. However, Wodrich didn’t wake up immediately after the procedure—or for two days afterward. In his weakened state and connected to a breathing tube, Wodrich was at high risk of contracting pneumonia. Kukreja was on the verge of removing the breathing tube and performing a tracheotomy when Wodrich woke up the morning of the third day.
Then came six weeks of rehabilitation, for which the couple had to stay in San Francisco, and extensive training on Wodrich’s regimen of medication. Directly after surgery, he was taking 50 to 60 pills a day.
And then after returning to Chico in late May, there were more complications. Goulart noticed her husband’s breathing had changed, and one day, after coming home from a doctor’s appointment, Wodrich fainted on his front porch. Goulart rushed him back to UCSF Medical Center, where it was discovered that one of his new lungs had a blood clot. The surrounding tissue had died and was harboring multiple bacteria; Woldrich was gravely ill.
So he went under the knife again on June 3. In a six-hour procedure, Kukreja successfully removed the part of Wodrich’s lung with the dead tissue. All told, he spent 51 days in a hospital bed.
Seven months out from the first surgery, life is more or less back to normal. Wodrich runs a small marketing business from home, no longer bound to an oxygen canister, and Goulart is back at work as an interior designer.
But they’re always reminded of the transplant and many months of hardship. Wodrich has a horrific scar running horizontally across his chest and he still takes about 40 pills a day, including the medication for immune suppression. As a result, he’s more susceptible to sicknesses, so he wears a mask in hospital environments, avoids handshakes and hugs and immediately leaves a room if somebody is coughing.
And Wodrich hasn’t fully wrapped his mind around having received life-saving organs from an anonymous donor. He expects to write a letter to the donor’s family through UCSF—just not yet.
“I’m deeply grateful,” he said. “But I’m still processing. It’s a lot to take in.”