Successful lung transplant inspires giving back
Dave Kneib has spent his entire adult life helping others—first in the Air Force and then in law enforcement for more than 30 years. But when he developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), his life changed drastically. COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is a progressive disease that damages the lungs and makes breathing difficult.
As Kneib grew sicker, he was placed on oxygen to help him breathe, and he retired from the St. Louis County Police Department. He found himself in an unfamiliar position: Instead of helping others, he was the one who needed help. “I had minimal quality of life,” he says.
Kneib’s pulmonologist told him he needed a lung transplant and referred him to the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center, where he underwent an evaluation to determine whether he was a good candidate for transplantation. He was found to have minor heart disease and some problems with his back, but Kneib, who was in his late 60s, was more concerned about his age.
Derek Byers, MD, PhD, a Washington University pulmonologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, says age is by no means the only factor that determines a patient’s suitability for lung transplantation. “In the past, patients in their mid-60s and older were often thought to be too old to undergo a transplant,” Byers says. “But now we have patients in their 70s who do just fine. It’s more important to determine whether potential candidates have other significant medical issues that might affect surgery and recovery.”
After a thorough assessment, Kneib was deemed to be a good candidate, and he was placed on the transplant wait list. “I decided to stay as healthy as I could for as long as it took,” Kneib says. “I was told that I would wait months, not years, but I assumed it would be 10, 11, 12 months.” But just 84 days later, on Jan. 5, 2013, Kneib underwent a successful bilateral lung transplant.
Washington University lung transplant surgeons at Barnes-Jewish Hospital perform more than 60 lung transplants a year, making the lung transplant program one of the highest-volume programs of its kind in the country. Byers says: “That kind of experience means we are better equipped to manage complications if they arise. And that’s what I tell patients: “We’ve successfully treated people with health problems like yours before. As one of the top lung-transplantation programs in the U.S., we can help you.”
In fact, our lung transplant program is one of the oldest in the country, and its surgeons have performed close to 1,500 transplants since its inception. “What sets us apart—in addition to our large clinical program—is that we have one of the largest lung-transplantation research programs in the country,” says Daniel Kreisel, MD, PhD, surgical director of the lung transplant program at the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center. “We have earned national and international recognition.”
Kneib was so impressed with the care he received before, during and after his operation that he wanted to give back. So when Rebecca Bathon, a clinical social worker with the lung transplant program, asked him to mentor patients waiting for transplantation, he didn’t hesitate to say yes.
“I have been in a position of giving to others, one way or another, since I joined the Air Force at age 19,” Kneib says. “Offering help is second nature to me. Becoming a mentor seemed like the ideal way to give back to others what was given to me.”
The transplant mentor program offers information and emotional support to patients involved in the transplant process. Its mentors are patients who have had organ transplants. For those awaiting lung transplantation, the mentor program offers monthly meetings at which mentors tell their own stories, answer patients’ questions and help calm patients’ fears.
“It’s normal to be afraid,” Kneib says. “I try to stress that with all of the patients I talk with. I’ve crashed a helicopter, I’ve been shot at—you name it—but I was never as afraid as I was when they rolled me into that operating room.”
Bathon says Kneib’s presence is comforting for patients. Not long after he became a mentor, she asked him to take on another responsibility: giving tours of the hospital to patients and their families.
Many of those awaiting a lung transplant travel long distances to get to Barnes-Jewish Hospital, which is a large and often unfamiliar place. Hospital tours can help patients and their families feel more comfortable about being there.
“The tours could probably be done in 30 to 45 minutes, but Dave sometimes spends an hour and a half,” Bathon says. “He takes the time to talk with people about his own experience and what things are like for him now. He’s really been a huge plus for our program, and he’s dedicated a lot of time to it.”
Kneib says he thinks often of organ donors and their families and is grateful to his own donor for giving him the chance to keep living. “Mentoring is one of the reasons I have been given this new life.”