Todd and Jen Sivco, with their 2-year-old daughter, Kyley, were recently able to return to their Hereford Township home after Jen underwent a vital double lung transplant in Pittsburgh. She was discharged in December and returns for routine testing.
Hereford wife, mom receives double lung transplant
It has been a long time since Jennifer Sivco has been able to do many of the things that you and I take for granted every day – things like doing laundry, traversing a set of stairs or chasing her active, curious 2-year-old daughter, Kyley.
But each day she's getting closer to reclaiming a sense of normalcy. And each day brings a new set of victories for the 32-year-old who battled a myriad of hospitalizations before recently undergoing a drastic double lung transplant.
"It's hard to imagine or grasp how sick I really was," the unassuming, former dental hygienist said. "Right now I'm happy to be home" in Hereford Township.
Currently, only between 1,500 and 1,700 lung transplants are performed in the U.S. each year, compared to about 16,000 kidney transplants. The surgery is widely considered a risky one, with long-term survival rates that haven't increased much over the years. The lungs are one of the most difficult organs to successfully transplant, as they are exposed to infection with each breath.
Curiously enough, Sivco's road to needing new lungs all started with a cough that she doesn't ever remember being without. She said she was rarely sick as a child, though, and was active, playing field hockey throughout middle and high school.
At the age of 20, after suffering a bout of walking pneumonia, she received the surprising diagnosis of cystic fibrosis (CF). Now-husband Todd, her boyfriend at the time, said Jen and her family were always told that persistent cough was just allergies.
"When she was diagnosed we didn't know anything about CF. And she didn't need real medical attention until she was 25," he said of his wife's initially mild case.
Cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease, disrupts the body's salt balance, impairing its normal defenses. That leads to repeat infections that damage the lungs and other organs. So for Jen, it translated to a daily nebulizer treatment using a Smart Vest airway clearing system.
Her first-ever hospitalization was in 2008 for a lung infection. Since then, she was sporadically out of commission due to illness until she got really sick in 2013. In June of that year her health took a downward spiral. Her lungs were functioning so poorly she was hospitalized first at Hershey Medical Center, then Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest, before she was flown to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).
She was placed on a ventilator, which she stayed on for three long months. In August, she and Todd were told she would need a transplant to survive. It was a shock for the entire family, especially with such a young daughter.
"It's one of those things you don't expect to happen to you," Todd Sivco said of the news. "A nightmare became real then and everything starts running through your mind."
But his wife, he said, never took up a "why me" attitude.
"She dealt with it well. She is a very level-headed person. I think wanting to get it done and get home to be back with our daughter helped pull her through."
Family and friends quickly organized fundraisers to support the family with medical bills. The two fire companies Todd serves with, Hereford, where he's a lieutenant, and Trappe, which he runs with during the day while at work, held a chicken BBQ, bake sale and sandwich sale, and a beef and beer event. Family and friends also held a beef and beer benefit and a yard/bake sale.
"We've had amazing support from family, friends and the community. We are so thankful for all the donations and the successful fundraisers," Jen said.
"Emotionally and financially everyone has been a big help," Todd agreed. "We don't want anyone to feel left out. We appreciate everything everyone has done for us. It's been a very humbling experience. As a firefighter, I'm used to being on the other end of things."
On Oct. 18, Jen got the phone call she and her family were waiting for. It came only four days after being placed atop the transplant list.
"She called me and said they had a set of lungs for her," Todd said. "She was very lucky because of her size and blood type they found a match quickly."
That same day Jen got her new lungs. The donor, they found out, was a young person who had been involved in an auto accident in Ohio. Todd, who changed his organ donor status one day while in the hospital waiting room, said it brought a flood of emotions.
"It's kind of bittersweet. You know someone else has a broken heart so you feel for their suffering but the whole transplantation process is an amazing one and one that Jen needed to live."
Jen said the journey was one that is still hard to put into words. She missed everything about not being at home.
"It was hard. I don't even know where to start in order to express the stress, emotional drain it put on everyone. Knowing Kyley was in great hands was one relief. We always looked at the positive and took one day at a time."
While she had her fair share of setbacks, Jen was cleared to go home in December to spend the holidays with her family. She has since suffered from rejection, but was successfully treated back at UPMC and is now trying to get back to what matters – taking one day at a time.
She is on a strict regimen of medication each day and is working to regain muscle and weight.
As she soaks in a deep breath with her new lungs, Jen said one word can describe how she feels – amazing. And she can't stress the importance of organ donation enough.
"I am so grateful I got a second chance at life. And as a donor recipient, I realize how important it is to be an organ donor."
For more information on organ donation, visit organdonor.gov.