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South Carolina's Only Lung Transplant Center Delivers Expert Care to More Patients

Advance With MUSC Health
July 28, 2021
Caregiver using stethoscope on a patient.

Pulmonary fibrosis is incurable, with few treatment options available once the lungs have developed scar tissue and inflammation.

For many of these patients, lung transplant offers the best chance for long­term results, says Dr. Timothy Whelan, director of MUSC Health's Lung Transplant Program. Dr. Whelan says even more lives could be extended through early diagnosis along with patient and physician education about transplant eligibility.

"Lung transplant is a therapeutic option that, when offered to the right individual, is beneficial;' he says. "Still, uncertainty exists over eligibility for transplant and referral timing. Physicians aren't always clear on when to refer patients for transplant consideration and just which ones might qualify. Thus, many patients aren't aware that lung transplants are a potential option for them."

Although several lung diseases can qualify a patient for a transplant consideration, the most common indication is pulmonary fibrosis, usually associated with age and exposures to organic and inorganic dust, often through hobbies or work.

For these patients, MUSC Health offers hope, supported by encouraging statistics. MUSC's five-year survival rate for lung transplant patients is 6.8 years, compared with 5.5 years nationally. From January 2019 until June 2021 MUSC performed 41 transplants with an overall 1-year survival of 95%.

Dr. Whelan is committed to expanding outreach and education. MUSC has opened an in-person screening clinic in Greenville and expanded telemedicine capabilities to rural parts of South Carolina, such as Florence, Okatie near Hilton Head, and the coast north of Charleston up through Myrtle Beach. "High-speed internet and high-definition cameras make thorough screening exams possible for patients unable to travel,” he says.

MUSC Health offers distinct advantages to potential lung transplant patients, he says. Home to one of the largest pulmonary fibrosis research centers in the country, MUSC Health also houses an internationally recognized sarcoidosis center and an Alpha-1 foundation center and is a member of the rare lung disease consortium.

That means MUSC Health has expertise in all advanced lung diseases and offers research and advanced therapies to all patients, including bronchoscopic therapeutic options for individuals with advanced COPD.

Dr. Whelan cites MUSC Health's size and accessibility as advantages for patients in the Carolinas and parts of Georgia.

"Because we're smaller we provide individualized one-on-one care,” he says. "It's a hard thing to quantify, but going to a big medical center is daunting for many of our patients, many of whom already have anxiety. Our multidisciplinary team of surgeons, nurses, pulmonary specialists, pharmacists, psychologists, social workers and nutritionists get to know our patients, and they get to know everyone on the team. You're not one of 100, but one of 20-30 per year.''

Moreover, in most cases, patients are not required to move to Charleston before surgery unless their travel time exceeds five hours.

"As long as we're accessible within five hours of travel time, most patients can remain at home. That means anywhere in South Carolina and parts of Georgia, including Athens, Atlanta, and the Georgia coast, a patient can remain at home while awaiting a transplant,” he says. "There are certain patients we will have moved to Charleston, but allowing most of our patients to remain at home with their social support helps them to do better and saves their resources.”

The ideal candidate for transplant should have no other medical problems and be 18 or older. No upper age limit exists, but patients under 70 tend to do better. Patients are required to remain in Charleston for three months after surgery and must have a dedicated primary caregiver and advocate, as well as dependable transportation.

Dr. Whelan is optimistic about the future for lung transplants, which have improved immensely in the last 20 years. "They are safer, and survival rates have increased. However, physicians who have never been exposed to lung transplants might not be aware of these improvements.”

His goal is to steadily increase MUSC's number of transplants and make MUSC a regional transplant center.

"MUSC performed 20 lung transplants last year; our goal is to increase that number in the next year and help restore patients' quality of life while extending their life,” he says.

Dr. Whelan admits not every patient qualifies, but patients should have the opportunity to talk with an expert who can answer their questions and discuss their options.

His message to physicians: "If a patient brings up transplant, contact us. We're happy to do everything to make it easy for patients to meet with us so we can look at data, provide an assessment, and discuss their potential for a lung transplant and other treatment options.”

For referrals or consultations, call the MUSC Health Transplant Center at 843-792-5097. For urgent referrals or to speak with a transplant pulmonologist, call 843-792-2123 and ask to speak with the transplant pulmonary attending on call.


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Keywords: Transplant, Surgery, Lung Care, For Providers