Eileen T A Lung Transplant Helped Me Get My Life Back

“It is a gift of life. Everyone in my family is now signed up as an organ donor.”

During her 30 years as a critical care ICU nurse, Eileen Tumminelli, RN, regularly worked 12-hour shifts on her feet. In April 2017, however, she couldn’t understand why she was suddenly getting winded after walking up a flight of stairs. At the age of 63, this wife of 47 years, mother of four and grandmother of three became progressively weaker until she could barely push a grocery cart without feeling exhausted.

Eileen visited her physician, who sent her to a variety of pulmonary specialists. After four months of testing, she was diagnosed with a rare disease, one with no known cause: idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension.

With this condition, the pressure inside the blood vessels between the lungs and the heart is abnormally high. As a result, the arteries in the lungs constrict, reducing blood flow through the lungs and leading to low levels of oxygen in the blood.

By July, Eileen had gone from working full-time to being on disability and requiring oxygen 24/7.

“I was treated with medication and oxygen for a while, but this was a life-changer,” she recalls. “I couldn’t grocery shop alone because I couldn’t push the cart or unload the car. I had to stop going to the gym.”

Even with the limitations, Eileen tried to stay positive. “My husband or daughter would shop with me, and I learned to take little walks on my own,” she recalls. “I could still drive to meet a friend for lunch.”

Christina Migliore, MD
Christina Migliore, MD

However, her condition deteriorated. Her pulmonologist, Dhiren Shah, MD, a pulmonary disease specialist at Community Medical Center, referred Eileen to Christina Migliore, MD, at the Advanced Lung Disease and Transplant Program at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center (NBI). Dr. Migliore, Director of the Pulmonary Hypertension Program, is one of only a few pulmonologists in New Jersey who specialize in pulmonary arterial hypertension.

On The Wait List

“I was scared,” Eileen says about meeting with Dr. Migliore. “Before all this, I had been getting ready for retirement, getting rid of a few bills and socking away some money for travel. Boy, did that all come crashing down.”

“Eileen’s story is too common,” says Dr. Migliore. “Like many of my female patients, she was a working woman with family responsibilities. They tend to ignore signs and symptoms, explaining them away. It’s important that we pay attention to the messages our bodies are sending.”

“I think all women do that—we just push symptoms aside,” Eileen agrees. “I’ve seen it often in my patients, and I’ve done it myself. If we have fatigue and shortness of breath, we say, ‘Oh, I must just be tired, because I worked a 12-hour day, or my allergies are bothering me, or I need to lose a few pounds.’ But fatigue and shortness of breath are not normal.”

“I saw that Eileen’s condition was advanced, and she would likely need a lung transplant,” says Dr. Migliore. “I immediately reached out to my transplant colleagues at the Lung Transplant Program and arranged for a consult that same day.”

Eileen was put on the lung transplant waiting list at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was restricting many medical procedures. By a stroke of good luck, a suitable lung became available for transplant in June 2020, just as surgery restrictions were beginning to be lifted.

A Life Renewed

“Recovery takes a while,” Eileen says. “It was almost six months before I was really strong enough to do a lot of things for myself. I had a great support system with my husband and my daughter Caitlin, who is an APN [Advanced Practice Nurse] at Community Medical Center and took time off to help me with my recovery. By Christmas of 2020, I was actually feeling human again.”

Eileen is full of praise for the interdisciplinary team at NBI’s Advanced Lung Disease and Transplant Program. “They were incredibly supportive, teaching me everything I needed to know for life after transplant,” she says. “The team helped me get my life back.” In March of 2022, she was able to travel to Disney World to see her daughter get engaged.

Today, Eileen is enjoying life, her family and taking walks on the boardwalk not far from her Forked River home. She tells everyone she knows to make their wishes known regarding organ donation.

“When you do that, you take the burden off your family of possibly having to make a decision about donating your organs,” she says. “It is a gift of life. Everyone in my family is now signed up as an organ donor.”

To learn more about the Advanced Lung Disease and Transplant Program at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, call 973-926-4430.