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2 saved by lung transplants offer mayor their support

Two survivors who have been there tell him their stories.

By Anne Lindberg, Times Staff Writer
Published February 17, 2008


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SEMINOLE - Sandra Stanina was already emaciated and unable to walk or breathe when she woke up one November morning and began trembling.

Her family rushed her to Tampa General Hospital, where doctors told Stanina's mother the terrible news: Her 25-year-old daughter had only a week to live.

That was days before Stanina became the 39th patient to receive a lung transplant at Tampa General. As a testament to the success of the operation, Stanina laughed and talked Friday while eating a hearty lunch at the Roadhouse Grill Restaurant in Seminole.

She was there with her mother and David Kirk, who also underwent a double-lung transplant in 2005, to bring a message of hope to Seminole Mayor Jimmy Johnson, who has been diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and needs a double-lung transplant to survive. Johnson's doctors are still evaluating his health to make sure he's a good candidate for a transplant. That decision could be made this week.

Stanina was diagnosed at an early age with cystic fibrosis, an inherited chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system. It is caused by a defective gene that makes the body produce unusually thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and leads to life-threatening lung infections and prevents the body's natural enzymes from breaking down and absorbing food.

Stanina's condition worsened in her mid teens and by the time she was 25 she weighed 85 pounds and could only use 13 percent of her lung capacity. She was on oxygen full time.

"I was pretty bad," she said. "I couldn't get off the sofa anymore. I wasn't walking."

The trembling that began that November morning was an indication that she had almost suffered a heart attack. When she was admitted to the hospital, she thought she'd be out in two weeks. The doctors were more forthcoming with her mother telling her Stanina had a week to live. Stanina had already been put on a waiting list for a lung transplant, but with the prospect of imminent death hanging over her daughter's head, Sue Stanina started praying even harder.

"All the way home, I'd cry," Mrs. Stanina said. And while she cried, she'd pray. "Of course, someone has to die (and I'd think), 'How horrible, I'm praying for someone to die.' "

Mrs. Stanina's prayers were answered. A couple somewhere outside of the Tampa Bay area had an argument. The wife shot the husband in the head, and he was put on life support. Stanina's doctor flew to the man's bedside and talked his family into donating his lungs to Stanina. The man's heart and liver went to others who were waiting for those organs.

But a successful outcome was far from assured.

The surgeons told Mrs. Stanina that the operation would be iffy because of her daughter's condition.

"She was coughing up sand, literally," Mrs. Stanina said. The doctors said, "If we don't, she'll die. If we do, she could die. If we do, she could live."

Mrs. Stanina took a picture of her daughter, thumbs up, as she was taken to the operating room. The procedure was touch and go. Stanina's oxygen level was so low that when her first lung was removed, she suffered a stroke on the operating table. After the operation, she did not wake for three days. Then she had to learn to breathe again.

Today, Stanina is healthy, although she must take dozens of pills every day to prevent rejection and other problems. She'll start her first full-time job Monday at a home health care business.

Kirk, now 43, also had cystic fibrosis. Like Stanina, he'd concealed his condition from people. The reasons for hiding the illness are many and range from the reaction of people who do not want to be around the chronically ill to the fear that employers will not hire someone they know will frequently use health insurance and run up the premiums.

Kirk was at work when he got the call that lungs were available. He had a couple of hours to get to the hospital. And, while there, the company he worked for went bankrupt. It was unclear if the company insurance was in force to help with the bills, which total more than half a million dollars. The insurer also tried to prove that he was lying about his condition.

Kirk, who was in better health than Stanina, had an easier time. The minute the doctors removed the breathing tube afterward, Kirk picked up the phone and opened his own business, specializing in alarms. He started with two employees, "me, laying on the bed, and the other out in the field."

Today, his company, Critical System Solutions in St. Petersburg, employs 20 people. Kirk has run in the Gasparilla race and bicycles 15 miles a week. He also proudly shows off the fading scar that divides his chest into northern and southern sections. He also enjoys providing support for those like Johnson who are preparing to undergo lung transplants.

That's something Kirk said he wished he'd had before undergoing his surgery.

"I just started freaking out," Kirk said. "I didn't know what to expect."

Johnson said that, even if he can't receive a transplant, listening to Stanina and Kirk make him determined to do something to encourage people to donate organs. All someone has to do, he said, is put a notation in a living will or on their driver's license.

"If you're going to pass away," Johnson said. "You don't need to take those organs with you."

[Last modified February 16, 2008, 22:53:14]


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