Woman, 36, is living proof of success of lung transplant program

By Jeff Carlton / September 2011

 Vanessa Ullivarri’s mother said her daughter had “one foot in the grave” due to familial pulmonary fibrosis before coming to UT Southwestern.

The referral to the medical provided Ms. Ullivarri a critical medical lifeline. The medical center’s one-year survival rate of 85 percent is the best in North Texas, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients. Patients are typically seen within two weeks of referral, said Dr. Fernando Torres, Medical Director of the Lung Transplant Program.

Laura Ullivarri (above) holds onto her daughter, Vanessa, recipient of a lung transplant at University Hospital. Both give great credit to the transplant team that performed the procedure.
Laura Ullivarri (above) holds onto her daughter, Vanessa, recipient of a lung transplant at University Hospital. Both give great credit to the transplant team that performed the procedure.

With patient outcomes among the best in the country, the UT Southwestern lung program has continued to expand to meet the needs of patients with few remaining alternatives. Ms. Ullivarri, 36,was one of those patients.

An eight-year struggle with the disease had taken its toll on the Mexico City woman. Her lungs, scarred and stiff, weren’t permitting enough oxygen to pass into her bloodstream.

By her early 30s, Ms. Ullivarri required supplemental oxygen from rolling tanks. When she ventured from her home, she needed a wheelchair to get around as walking even short distances left her exhausted. Her doctors in Mexico told her she was in desperate need of a lung transplant. Fortunately, she and her family had the financial resources to pay for the operations.

Ms. Ullivarri’s referral to UT Southwestern was particularly apt, as one of her caregivers was Dr. Christine Garcia, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and in the Eugene McDermott Center for Human Growth and Development. Dr. Garcia’s research over the last several years led to the discovery of three genes linked to the form of pulmonary fibrosis that that put Ms. Ullivarri on the transplant list.

Other members of the UT Southwestern team caring for Ms. Ullivarri include transplant surgeon Dr. J. Michael DiMaio, Associate Professor of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery; Dr. Srinivas Bollineni, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine; Dr. Vaidehi Kaza, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine; and Jodie Moore, nurse practitioner.

Ms. Ullivarri needed all of that expertise to stay alive. When she arrived in Dallas, Dr. Torres said, he was a few hours away from placing her on a breathing machine.

“I was about to call a respiratory therapist when suddenly I got a page that we had an organ offer for her,” Dr. Torres said. “It was a great organ, a great match for her. It was perfect.”

Ms. Ullivarri awoke from the six-hour surgery to see her mother by her bedside.

“I was in disbelief,” said her mother, Laura. “I grabbed her hand. All I could say was: ‘We made it. We made it. You’re fine.’ ”

Two months after surgery, Vanessa Ullivarri has shown no signs of rejecting the organs, and her breathing capacity is increasing. The wheelchairs and oxygen tanks that were her constant companions are gone.

“The best part? It’s the doctors here,” she said. “The security they give you to go on, to push yourself, to say, ‘I can do it.’ ”

She talks of returning home to Mexico City, of jogs and bike rides and trips to the beach. She wants to play with her 7-year-old daughter and not worry about shortness of breath.

This is not wishful thinking.

“In about six months, she will be able to do all those things – and at the same level as before,” Dr. Torres said.

Laura Ullivarri said the fear she lived with for so long has been replaced by hope for her daughter and gratitude for UT Southwestern.

“I am so grateful and appreciative to the doctors here,” she said. “They gave me back my daughter’s life.”