After double lung transplant, Pittsburgh woman ready to live again

By: Mattie Winowitch

Given her family’s health history, Sarah Mercer knew she might be at risk for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). That’s why when she was hospitalized for pneumonia in 2013, the raised eyebrows from her physician didn’t come as much of a surprise.

“I knew for a long time it was possible,” said Mercer, 67. “My sister had IPF, and she actually died from it in September 2015.”

Three years after being initially hospitalized, the Pittsburgh native was officially diagnosed with IPF. A second opinion from Dr. Kevin Gibson, a pulmonologist at the Simmons Center for Interstitial Lung Disease, led to a discussion about a potential double lung transplant.

Mercer immediately thought of her sister.

“My sister had been told about the possibility of a transplant, but she had not opted to do that,” Mercer said. “So I decided I was going to live out my life, whatever life I had left, and not pursue a transplant.”

In June 2018, Mercer attended the annual UPMC pulmonary rehab golf outing. While there, she met someone who had received a double lung transplant and was amazed at how well he seemed to be doing.

“He was so vibrant and so alive,” she said. “I started to think if this was something I wanted to pursue as well.”

In the months following the golf outing, Mercer could feel her lungs begin to deteriorate. In early December 2018, she was back in the hospital on high oxygen requirements and was told she was now eligible to be put on the transplant waiting list.

Because her score was so high on the waiting list, the process moved quickly for Mercer. Roughly 11 days after she was initially admitted, transplant coordinators identified a matched set of lungs, and the successful transplant took place on Dec. 21, 2018.

Dr. Pablo Sanchez, Mercer’s transplant surgeon, said that at the time leading up to the transplant, she was barely able to take more than a few steps. After two weeks in the hospital, she went home and has been doing well ever since.

“She is recovering remarkably well and has already been able to take short trips outside of the Pittsburgh area this spring with her family,” Sanchez said. “Sarah feels this transplant is miraculous. We all feel that way.”

As she continues to heal, Mercer plans on returning to her job at a law firm. However, now that she has a new lease on life, she said she plans on making the most of her every day.

“For upwards of five years, I focused on dying and preparing for dying,” Mercer said. “Now all of a sudden, I am preparing for living.”