Woman Celebrates 30 Years Post-Heart and Double-Lung Transplant

By: Mattie Winowitch

Terri DeChellis was diagnosed with primary pulmonary hypertension, a type of high blood pressure that affects arteries in the heart and lungs when she was 15 years old.

“Doctors told my parents I probably wouldn’t make it past my 18th birthday,” she said.

As the years went by, she slowly lost her strength and was unable to breathe without using an oxygen tank. At that point, doctors told her she needed a heart and double-lung transplant, but they needed to find a hospital prepared to do it. That’s when she ended up at UPMC.

At 25, she had already been on the transplant waiting list for several months, and her time was running out. Just when she was about to lose hope, she received a call from her doctor: They found a perfect match for both her heart and her lungs, and she needed to come in right away for surgery.

“My doctor called me around 11:15 p.m.,” she said. “By 2 a.m., I was already at the hospital and sitting on the operating table, meeting the surgical team. They weren’t wasting any time, and neither was I.”

Both DeChelli’s surgery and recovery were successful, and being set free from her debilitating illness allowed her to start living her life to the fullest. Two years post-surgery, DeChellis married her college sweetheart who used to help carry her oxygen tank for her at school. They also started their family by adopting a son, who DeChellis, thanks to her surgery, was able to raise and watch grow up.

“I went from doctors saying I would never make it to my high school graduation, to watching my son at his high school graduation,” DeChellis said. “Every single odd was against me, but I persevered, and I am so thankful for it.”

Today, DeChellis, 55, is celebrating 40 years after her initial diagnosis, as well as the 30-year anniversary of the life-saving heart/double-lung transplant she had at UPMC.

From a medical perspective, DeChellis is a prime example of the huge impact organ donation can have.

“Surviving 30 years post-transplant is absolutely remarkable,” said Dr. Jonathan D’Cunha, chief of lung transplantation at UPMC. “This really goes to show how transplantation can be a lifesaving option. Think about all those holidays and birthdays she has been able to celebrate, as well as the time she has been able to spend with her family. We couldn’t be happier for Terri.”

In honor of her transplant anniversary, DeChellis hosted a party with friends, family, the people she’s met along the way and several important doctors and medical professionals.

“I am so happy to be alive and thankful to God, my doctors and my family,” she said. “If someone looks at me today and I don’t tell them my medical history, they would never guess I had a heart and double-lung transplant. It’s like I have a brand new life.”

When she does decide to tell her story to others, DeChellis said she always makes sure to mention the importance of becoming an organ donor, as she knows first-hand the impact it can have on someone’s life.

“Organ donation really works,” she said. “Please, talk to your family about it and weigh out your options before a tragedy happens. You could save a life. Somebody else could save yours.”

For more information about transplant services at UPMC or to become an organ donor, click here.