PHILADELPHIA – Garcia Bolton, a 40-year-old born-and-raised Philadelphian, normally works as a commercial truck driver, spends time with his wife and son, and writes poetry. But his life changed after he developed serious breathing trouble and a lung infection in January 2022. Thinking that he had potentially contracted COVID-19 or a different virus, his first instinct was to protect his family, so he did his best to stay away from them. But he also had no energy and tried to sleep as much as he could.
“All I did was get up to drink water, use the restroom, and go back to sleep,” Bolton said. “If I had written any poetry then, it would have read, ‘I’m exhausted, and I feel like I’m drowning.’”
A visit to the emergency department at Pennsylvania Hospital led to a COVID-negative test and a diagnosis of restrictive lung disease and an inpatient stay at the Penn Medicine Rittenhouse Good Shepherd Penn Partners long-term acute care hospital. He required oxygen all day and night. The lung infection damaged his lungs significantly, which meant that he would need a transplant in order to live.
“I never smoked or did anything intentionally that would cause damage to my lungs,” he said. “I was shocked when I found out how serious my condition was,” Bolton said.
Bolton got his lifesaving chance on June 1, 2022 at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, when he became Penn’s 1,500th lung transplant patient since its first in 1991, only a few years after lung transplantation began to be practiced in a clinically-standardized way. Only six other hospitals in the United States have performed at least 1,500 adult lung transplants, and the Penn transplant team often takes on the worst of the most complex cases, including the cases of patients where both a heart and lung transplant is required.
Edward Cantu, MD, MSCE, an associate professor of Surgery and a lung transplant surgeon at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, operated on Bolton with a multidisciplinary surgical team numbering nine people.
“It was a pleasure to meet and help Mr. Bolton, whose case represented a huge milestone,” Cantu said. “The success and speed at which he is back on his feet after a rapidly progressive lung disease is a testament to him, his family, the Penn lung transplant team, and the Good Shepherd Penn Partners clinicians and staff.”
The transplant care team consists of specialists from surgery, pulmonology, anesthesiology, nursing, respiratory therapy, transplant coordination, infectious diseases, and more.
“We refer to our transplant providers as a team, and it fits,” said Maria M. Crespo, MD, the medical director of Lung Transplant Program and an associate professor of Clinical Pulmonary Medicine. “I’m proud of our team not only because they work together and perform exceptionally but also because they take on the complex cases of patients who would be turned away at many other transplant centers. We can perform difficult transplants confidently because of the collaboration, research, and innovation at Penn.”
Since lung transplants are possible thanks to organ donations from deceased donors, transplant surgeries are always bittersweet. Bolton said he does think about the person who donated their lungs to him but said the best way to honor them is by living his life. “I can’t think about it too much. I just have to acknowledge the gift and be grateful,” he said.
The lung transplant team’s goal is to expand access to transplants and therapies for patients like Bolton who do not have much time to wait for organs – sometimes, waits for transplant can extend years depending on the patient’s specific situation and needs. Advances to perfusion techniques, which keep organs healthy until they are transplanted into the recipient, and organ-recovery processes, which entail efficiently and effectively finding and transporting organs from donors, are expected to bring more hope to more patients, Cantu explained.
Just days after his surgery, Bolton felt much better and could finally inhale and exhale with ease. Just over a month into his recovery, unless he reveals the surgical scar across his chest or you hear Bolton’s 8-year-old son recite how to take blood pressure and other vitals (things he learned from spending time with his dad), there would be no way to know of the physical and emotional stress Bolton has faced over seven long months.
“I’m thankful for everybody at Penn. I’m starting to get my life back.”
Penn Medicine is one of the world’s leading academic medical centers, dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and excellence in patient care. Penn Medicine consists of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (founded in 1765 as the nation’s first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System, which together form a $9.9 billion enterprise.
The Perelman School of Medicine has been ranked among the top medical schools in the United States for more than 20 years, according to U.S. News & World Report's survey of research-oriented medical schools. The School is consistently among the nation's top recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health, with $546 million awarded in the 2021 fiscal year.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System’s patient care facilities include: the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center—which are recognized as one of the nation’s top “Honor Roll” hospitals by U.S. News & World Report—Chester County Hospital; Lancaster General Health; Penn Medicine Princeton Health; and Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation’s first hospital, founded in 1751. Additional facilities and enterprises include Good Shepherd Penn Partners, Penn Medicine at Home, Lancaster Behavioral Health Hospital, and Princeton House Behavioral Health, among others.
Penn Medicine is powered by a talented and dedicated workforce of more than 47,000 people. The organization also has alliances with top community health systems across both Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey, creating more options for patients no matter where they live.
Penn Medicine is committed to improving lives and health through a variety of community-based programs and activities. In fiscal year 2021, Penn Medicine provided more than $619 million to benefit our community.