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Elon history professor explores close-hitting and controversial lung transplants in GST classes

by Meredith Browne,

Mary Jo Festle grew up in a household with two brothers who were diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. By the time they reached their 20s, both brothers became very sick and needed lung transplants.
The older of the two, John, died while scientists were still in the experimental stages of his treatment.

It was from this personal experience that Festle, an Elon University history professor, began her research on lung transplantation.

When her family decided to look into the possibility of getting a transplant for Bob, her other brother, Festle began researching the procedure.

Initially, she investigated the benefits and risks, but the research sparked a deep interest and fascination with the issues associated with the procedure.

"As soon as I started looking at it historically, I thought, there's a lot to learn here in a professional way rather than a personal way," said Festle.

Festle's research progressed as she read government documents about policy debates, medical journals and other topics.

Fifty percent of lung transplant patients live a maximum of five years after the procedure, according to Festle. This 50 percent included Festle's brother, Bob.

It wasn't until the late 90s that Festle began to integrate patients' experiences in her research. Festle taught a GST seminar at Elon called "Oral History: Lung Transplantation."

In the course, students read about the history and ethics of lung transplants, as well as policy debates. Festle also had her students interview someone who was either waiting for or had received a lung transplant.

Festle arranged this by sending a note through the website, a nonprofit organization for friends and families of respiratory patients.

"Most of the people are extremely generous because they are so appreciative that a stranger helped save their life," Festle said. "They can't pay back that stranger. So they generally want to do good and help other people because they've been helped."

Festle was able to discover the powerful bond shared between people in the lung transplant community. She also learned about some of the hardships patients and their loved ones face.

In the U.S., there are about 50 hospitals that perform lung transplants, Festle said. Many times, patients relocate in order to be closer to those hospitals so that if a transplant becomes available, they are able to get to the hospital quicker.

This is crucial; since lungs deteriorate quickly, there is only a certain amount of time doctors can wait to put a lung inside of a patient and have it work again.

One of the most dangerous aspects of the procedure is suppressing the patient's immune system. This is done in order to prevent the body from rejecting the new lung.

By doing so, the risk of infection is heightened, especially for people with lung transplants, because with every breath, there is a higher chance of catching a cold or another type of infection.

According to Festle, one of the biggest challenges for medicine to overcome is chronic rejection. At the present time, doctors don't understand what causes it or how to treat it.

Chronic rejection takes the lives of many lung transplant patients, including Festle's brother Bob.

Despite the potential roadblocks in the journey to recovery, Festle has seen a surprising amount of support in the lung transplant community. Instead of viewing each other as competition for a transplant, patients view each other as family.

Festle presented her research to Knox College, her alma mater, as part of a lecture series. She hadn't returned to the college in 25 years.

"It was touching for me to be invited, and it was a chance to see a few professors who made a big difference in my life, and then to meet some Knox students and see if they were like what me and my friends were like," she said.

Festle is currently writing a book based on the past 10 years of her research on lung transplants.