HOUSTON – They quibble, joke and share knowing looks, finishing each other’s thoughts and making cutting 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, Irma Myers-Santana, 71, and her 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 said 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 serendipity.”
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, Scheinin said.
The sisters’ situation further was 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.
Until the transplant, Williamson coughed all day and constantly had to be attached to an oxygen tank. About a year ago, her doctor told her she needed a transplant.
“If we hadn’t had the transplant when we did, she would be dead right now, dead,” Williamson said adamantly, her sister sitting beside her in the hospital room.
Myers-Santana agreed, yet said 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.”
In the end, though, all individual lungs doctors found weren’t a match.
Now, weeks after the surgery, Williamson has the right lung and Myers-Santana has the left. They have on 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.