They quibble, joke and
share knowing looks, finishing each other's thoughts and making snide comments
— like many sisters. But a recent heated argument was unlike any other they've
had, and it ended in a most surprising way.
For months, 71-year-old Irma
Myers-Santana and her younger sister, Anna Williamson, 69, had been debating
who more urgently needed a lung transplant, each wanting the other to go first.
Earlier this month, though, the sisters ended up in the same operating room,
each getting one lung from the same donor in what doctors at Houston Methodist
Hospital say is a first for their facility.
"It's never happened... We've transplanted siblings before, but years apart," said Dr Scott
Scheinin, who did Myers-Santana's transplant. "It's a little bit of
The sisters both became ill
about 10 years ago with idiopathic
pulmonary fibrosis, a little-understood scarring of the lungs that often
requires a transplant and kills more people than breast cancer every year, said
A bloodless transplant
Doctors, assisted by a
computer programme, look at blood type, height and severity of illness to match a
donor and a transplant patient. The likelihood that Myers-Santana and
Williamson would meet all three criteria at the same time was small, Scheinin
The sisters' situation was
further complicated because they insisted on a "bloodless
transplant". They are Jehovah's Witnesses and do not believe in receiving
blood transfusions. They live in California, but Houston Methodist Hospital is
the only facility in the country that does such transplants.
"The irony of this
whole thing is that we're sisters, we're both Jehovah's Witnesses, we have the
same blood type and we got (the lungs) from the same donor," Williamson
said, her eyes tearing up as she sat next to her sister, able for the first
time in years to complete a sentence without coughing.
"It's a miracle to
have all those things lined up like that," Williamson said.
Read: Transplant immunology
Coughing all day
Until the transplant,
Williamson coughed all day and had to be attached to an oxygen tank constantly.
About a year ago, her doctor told her she needed a transplant.
"I couldn't talk; I
couldn't laugh," Williamson recalled.
So, Williamson and her
husband headed down to Houston 10 months ago. Within six months, Myers-Santana,
who had a sudden, violent decline in her health and could barely breathe,
joined Williamson, hoping she, too, would be a viable candidate for that type
Then the waiting began,
with the sisters housed just 10 doors apart in a Houston RV park. On a few
occasions, each woman was offered a lung, but they bickered over who should
"If we hadn't had the
transplant when we did, she would be dead right now," Williamson
said adamantly, her sister sitting beside her in the hospital room.
Hurt to the core
Myers-Santana agrees with
that, yet believed Williamson needed to have the first transplant.
"Her coughing just
hurt to my core. You can't help someone that coughs like that,"
Myers-Santana said. "It's so hard to watch, and so I felt she needed it
more than I did.
"I can live with a
cough, but she can't live without oxygen, so I win," Myers-Santana shot
back, smiling at her sister.
In the end, though, the
individual lungs weren't a match.
Now, less than two weeks
after the surgery, Williamson has the right lung and Myers-Santana has the
left. They have makeup, their hair is done, and they joke with their doctors – extending an invitation to Santa Barbara for free manicures and pedicures at
Williamson's salon. Their husbands and children linger in the background.
Colorful balloons wishing them well float above.
They can talk, joke and
laugh without an oxygen tank.
And they can breathe easily.
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