Valley woman hears late husband’s lungs breathing life into recipient at Phoenix hospital

Sep 26, 2023, 4:35 AM

PHOENIX — During an exchange that tugs at your heartstrings, a Valley woman had the chance to listen to her late husband’s lungs breathing life into a donor recipient at a Phoenix hospital last week.

The experience between the donor’s wife, Marie Bernard Johnson, and the recipient, 74-year-old Bobby Campbell, took place on Wednesday at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.

The lung transplant team at St. Joseph’s Norton Thoracic Institute and Donor Network Arizona orchestrated the in-person introduction.

How did the donor’s wife and the transplant recipient meet?

Campbell was hospitalized in New Mexico in August 2020 and diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which is a disease that leads to irreversible scarring of the lungs. As his disease rapidly progressed, doctors didn’t think he would survive more than two weeks without a transplant.

He was airlifted to Norton Thoracic Institute, where he was told he was also in need of a heart bypass. The institute is one of the few in the country that has a program capable of performing the two complex procedures simultaneously, under a single dose of anesthesia.

Less than 24 hours later, Campbell was matched to a pair of lungs that he would later learn came from 41-year-old Stephen Johnson.

“I don’t have words to describe what this has meant to our family,” Campbell said in a press release. “It was a blessing for us all to meet Marie in person.

“Our hearts ache for her family’s tragedy, and we hope she knows just how much her tremendous gift saved my life, and how much we all cherish the fact that it’s given me more time with my family.”

About a month before Stephen Johnson died, his wife said they spoke about last wishes and his desire to donate his organs. Marie said his impact has left a remarkable legacy.

“Knowing that Stephen’s life was extended to save the lives of three other people, and getting to meet one of them today is a treasure I will keep in my heart forever,” Marie said after meeting Campbell, according to the release.

“Not only have I met Bobby and his wonderful family today, I was also able to listen to Stephen’s lungs.”

What impact did the experience have on the transplant doctors?

For Dr. Sofya Tokman, one of Campbell’s transplant pulmonologists, the meeting was more emotional than she expected.

“It’s so easy to get lost in your everyday tasks. We all have our to-do list – we know what we have to accomplish – and as you’re checking off your to-do list, sometimes you lose sight of how profound the impact we have in patients lives [can be],” Tokman told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Thursday.

“And I’ve been on-call this week, actually, and it’s been a tough week – I’m exhausted – and that moment yesterday really filled my cup when I needed it to be filled, so I was finally glad to have that experience.”

Tokman said she saw the moment Marie appeared to become overwhelmed from the experience as she listened to her late husband’s lungs.

“The fact that he continues to live [on] and continues to bring life to another person must be an incredibly emotional and rewarding experience after a tremendous loss,” Tokman said.

What are the risks of a lung transplant procedure?

A lung transplant is curative of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, however, it ultimately brings in a new set of problems, Tokman said.

As a consequence of rejection, infection and other complications that stem from lung transplants, the median life expectancy among recipients is 5.7 years, the transplant pulmonologist said.

“But I’m happy to say that Bobby’s doing very well after a lung transplant. He is now three years out and at this point, his lung graft function is doing very, very well, and I hope he continues to do as well as he’s doing now,” Tokman said.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Colton Krolak contributed to this story. 

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Valley woman hears late husband’s lungs breathing life into recipient at Phoenix hospital