October 23, 2014

Elyria
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Double lung transplant patient celebrates 18-month anniversary

Relaxing after her granddaughter’s birthday party, Debbie Wallhead noticed the clock flashing 2:30 a.m.

It was Jan. 15, 2012, and she wanted to attend church later that morning. She reached over, shut off the light and tried to settle in. But within minutes, her phone rang — the call marked the start of a long journey toward survival.

“I think we have lungs for you,” said a representative from the Cleveland Clinic.

Having waited only two months and four days for a pair of lungs, Wallhead, 59, was in shock. The Elyria woman carefully wrote down the details about her double lung transplant, which was scheduled for several hours later.

“The doctors told us that morning that the lungs donated were a perfect match for Debbie,” said Wallhead’s husband, Mark Wallhead, who explained that Wallhead’s oxygen tank no longer helped her breathe.

Wallhead, who works with EMH Elyria Medical Center, had been fighting for air since April 2011 when she was diagnosed with a rare disease, constrictive bronchiolitis. According to Debbie Wallhead, her doctor said her lung function was at 30 percent and that she had one to two years to live without a transplant.

When she heard about the available lungs, Wallhead called it a godsend.

“Everything fell into place,” she said. “The Lord’s hand was in it.”

The seven-hour procedure was risky and expensive — her husband estimated its uninsured cost at $1 million, but Debbie Wallhead’s EMH insurance covered most of it. After 13 days in the hospital, she was deemed stable, prescribed 25 daily medications and released.

“The doctors thought I was doing superbly,” she said.

Nine days later, her health took a dive when she woke up feeling dizzy. Hours later, Wallhead was diagnosed with pancreatitis, pneumonia and a collapsed lung.

“It was the scariest moment, I’ll never forget it,” said Mark Wallhead, remembering the decision to put his wife back on a ventilator to help her breathe.

Despite the setback, which forced her to be bedridden for four weeks, Wallhead turned to faith and the support of her work friends to fight on. Her co-workers gave her their sick days and organized several fundraisers for the medical expenses.

“All the doctors at work checked on me throughout the day,” said Debbie Wallhead, remembering when she used to struggle through one shift. “They look out for me.”

But Debbie Wallhead, working full-time again, said she’s finally feeling better than ever. At last, she attended the American Cancer Society’s Relay For Life at Elyria Catholic High School’s Knights of Columbus stadium July 12 and 14. It was an event she attended in a motorized scooter a year ago, but earlier this month, Debbie Wallhead walked 3 miles.

Throughout her recovery, Debbie Wallhead has eagerly served as a resource for others going through transplant surgeries. Both Debbie and Mark, who recently became an organ donor, are now advocates for donation.

“People die waiting for organs because there aren’t enough to go around,” Debbie Wallhead said. “I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for the transplant.”

Contact Elizabeth Kuhr at 328-7126 or ekuhr@chroniclet.com.