Nearly 20 years since a double lung transplant, patient is beating the odds

Headshot of Mary Beth Templin

Mary Beth Helms Templin had a lifetime of challenges with her lungs, starting with being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis (CF) at just three months old. A genetic condition that causes the body’s mucous to become thick, CF clogs the airways in the lungs and often leads to infections and inflammation.

Templin, 43, recalls her childhood struggles with CF, which included medications, nebulizer treatments, twice-daily chest physiotherapy, and periodic hospitalizations. “Overall, I was an extremely healthy CF kid, but that required a great deal of time and commitment from my parents and me,” she said.

More health woes in grad school

Those challenges paled in comparison to Templin’s experience as a young adult. She maintained her health throughout college but took a turn for the worse once moving to Mobile, Ala., for graduate school in 2003. A series of lung infections led to repeated courses of intravenous (IV) antibiotics. “I’d feel a bit better, start to feel badly, and start all over with home IVs,” she said.

While she didn’t miss class, Templin was hospitalized over Thanksgiving break that year due to poor lung function. “I ended up staying in the hospital for three solid weeks and even took my final exams in my hospital room,” she recalled.

By the time Templin returned home to Tuscaloosa, Ala., over winter break, she was on nightly oxygen. She headed back to school in January 2004 but was admitted to UAB Hospital the following month. “We began talking about lung transplants at that point,” Templin said. “I had lived with CF for 22 years and felt like I understood and could manage the disease. A transplant felt like I’d be taking on a whole new disease, and I was terrified.”

Her doctor at UAB Hospital offered Templin and her family a different perspective. “He helped us understand that, with a transplant, my lungs would no longer have CF in them,” she said. “I could cure the disease in my lungs and have only very mild disease in my other organs.”

Templin was approved for the transplant list in March 2004, and she returned to her university for the summer term. “Emotionally, it was important for me to stay in school, though having a 24/7 oxygen tank at age 23 wasn’t what I’d envisioned for my life,” she said. Templin limped through the term feeling miserable and lacking energy, then she took medical leave from school and moved home.

False alarms, then a green light

Once home, Templin rode the rollercoaster that many potential lung transplant recipients experience. “I got a call one Saturday night saying that organs might be available, but an hour into our drive to UAB, it turned out that the lungs were a no-go,” she said. “It was kind of triggering, but it was also good to have a dry run.”

Victoria Rusanov, M.D., a physician with the UAB Comprehensive Transplant Institute (CTI), said it’s not uncommon for a patient to get called to the hospital and then sent back home if the donor lungs aren’t suitable. While the donor is on a ventilator, the UAB CTI team examines the lungs and airways for secretions, measures the amount of oxygen that the blood is carrying to bodily tissues, and conducts several other tests. If the donor suffered head trauma or a stroke, the lungs may have too much fluid to be usable.

“We try to improve the quality of the lungs as much as we can, but sometimes we have to decide that they are not acceptable for transplant,” Dr. Rusanov said. “We follow the standards that we know are associated with the best outcomes for recipients.”

While Templin waited for the next call, she learned how to knit and bought a treadmill to improve her endurance. After one more false alarm, she finally received a green light on Dec. 11, 2004. “I jumped out of bed, and my dad and I drove to UAB,” she said.

Templin received her donor lungs on December 12 and awoke feeling like a new woman. “The first thing my mom said was, ‘She’s pink again.’ I could breathe again, and my life was better instantaneously,” Templin said. One of her new lungs developed a hole, so Templin had to spend a month at UAB Hospital after transplantation.

It wasn’t until arriving back at her parents’ house that Templin understood how her daily life had changed. “I didn’t need my CF vest, my inhalers, or my nebulizers,” she said. “I got back hours of each day.” She had taken multiple medications for CF, so Templin wasn’t fazed by the medications needed following her transplant.

Beating the odds

Templin quickly got back to the business of living. She returned to school and ultimately received her physician assistant degree. To celebrate the five-year anniversary of her transplant, Templin ran a half marathon, and to celebrate her 10-year anniversary, she married her husband, Ben. Today, when she’s not at work as a physician assistant in dermatology, Templin likes to read and ride her Peloton bike, and she’s looking forward to taking pickleball lessons near her home in Birmingham.

“At almost 20 years post-surgery, she is very special,” Dr. Rusanov said of Templin, adding that she’s exceeded the average survival time for people with CF and for those who’ve had a lung transplant. “She works full time in the medical field, so that helps, and she is just an amazing patient.”

Reflecting on her experience, Templin credits her successful journey to her parents’ persistence as she was growing up with CF, her older sister who was like a second mom, and the wonderful care she received at the UAB CTI. “My doctor was one of my favorite people on Earth, and a nurse took me on as her best friend,” she said. “She even brought me ice cream because she knew I loved it.”

“UAB and my generous donor gave me a new life,” Templin continued. “Before my transplant, I was miserable. I wasn’t pursuing the education I wanted. All my friends were getting married, talking about kids, or finishing their grad programs. My life was put on hold for something I couldn’t control or manage. My transplant was lifechanging.”

Register to be an organ, eye and tissue donor.

Click to become a Living Kidney Donor.

By using this site you agree to our Privacy Policy.