Rare heart-lung transplant may give woman new life; Operation is 2nd done at UT Southwestern

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer
Page 36A

After surgeons filled the gaping cavity of Susan Gunia’s chest with someone else’s heart and someone else’s lungs, one of them noticed something different about her:

“For all the time I’ve known Susan, this is the first time she’s not been blue.”

Blue as in lips the color of a fresh bruise. Ms. Gunia was born with a hole in her heart and, for 37 years, she’d had a sky-blue tint to prove it.

The hole in her heart forced too much blood into the chamber that leads to her lungs, which put too much pressure on her pulmonary system and delivered blood with too little oxygen to the rest of her body.

Since the time she collapsed singing a song in the first grade, she had fainting spells. For 13 years she’d been tethered to an oxygen tank.

Now the tank sits unused in her East Tawakoni home. On Monday night, Ms. Gunia received a new heart and two new lungs from a donor who is unknown to her.

“I told her that even if something eventually goes wrong, getting the transplant was the right decision,” said her father, Charlie Gunia. “Because then at least she would get to know what it feels like to have normal capabilities. She said, ‘Yes, it sure feels great.'”

Dr. Michael DiMaio, one of her surgeons, said that this was the second operation of its type performed at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Only about 40 are performed each year in the United States.

Multiple-organ transplants are much more complex than single-organ ones, primarily because the odds of a body rejecting an organ are much higher.

Ms. Gunia was born in a small town in northern France, where her father was stationed in the Air Force.

Mr. Gunia and his wife, Dorothy, did what they could, moving to lower altitudes to make their daughter’s breathing easier. But as her condition worsened, the blackouts became more common.

“If she got out of bed and walked to the kitchen, she had to sit down in a chair to rest,” her father said.

She got onto a waiting list for organs about three years ago.

“The call came about 20 till 4 Monday morning,” Mr. Gunia said. “They said they had organs, and how soon could we bring her in?”

The organ-harvesting team went to work on the donor, and the surgeons were ready about 7 p.m. Monday.

“It looks amazing: a completely empty chest cavity,” Dr. DiMaio said. “There’s nothing in there. The new lungs look like a butterfly, with a heart in the middle.”

Dr. DiMaio said Ms. Gunia should be able to lead something approaching a normal life, assuming her body doesn’t reject the organs.

“There were three things she said she wanted to do” after getting her new organs, her father said. “She wants to take a college course on Spanish. She wants to go to Disney [World], to Epcot Center. And she wants to go to France and see where she was born.

“She can do all those things now,” he said. “She’s very pink, very rosy. You can tell she’s very alive.”