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Mt. Pleasant man receives life-saving transplant

| Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, 9:02 p.m.
Mt. Pleasant's Dave Sullenberger (right) discusses his recovery from a recent double lung transplant at his borough home with Heidi Leshko, a registered nurse employed by Excela Health Home Care (left), as Sullenberger's wife, Dianne, (center) listens in on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013.
A.J. Panian | The Mt. Pleasant Journal
Mt. Pleasant Journal
Mt. Pleasant's Dave Sullenberger (right) discusses his recovery from a recent double lung transplant at his borough home with Heidi Leshko, a registered nurse employed by Excela Health Home Care (left), as Sullenberger's wife, Dianne, (center) listens in on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013. A.J. Panian | The Mt. Pleasant Journal

Mt. Pleasant resident Dave Sullenberger and his family celebrated last Christmas with heavy hearts, unsure if it would be the man's last holiday season.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, doctors told Sullenberger he would likely die before June 2013 without a double lung transplant due to his ongoing battle with pulmonary fibrosis.

“The holidays were very rough. It was in the back of everyone's mind: ‘Are these the last ones we will have with him?,'” said Lissa Sullenberger Ladowitz, daughter of Dave and Dianne Sullenberger.

In 2009, Sullenberger was diagnosed with the disease which causes the lungs to become scarred, stiff and unable to pass oxygen to the bloodstream.

“I kept going downhill. They said I might not make it to June,” he said.

Sullenberger's situation began to improve the evening of Jan. 4, when he received the telephone call for which he was so desperately waiting.

“It was my pre-transplant coordinator at UPMC Presbyterian in Shadyside. He said they wanted me to come in because they had a set of lungs that were a close match to mine,” he said.

The caveat, according to Sullenberger, was that one transplant candidate was ahead of him on the list.

But that did not stop him and his wife, Dianne, from driving to the hospital in what Sullenberger called “record time.”

“I knew leaving the house they might not be mine, but that doesn't mean it didn't get the old heart pounding,” he said.

Upon their arrival at the hospital, Sullenberger said, medical personnel settled him into a bed in the hospital's pre-transplant unit.

It was there where he and Dianne spent a long night waiting to find out if the recipient ahead of him would undergo the transplant or not.

Around noon the following day, a surgeon at the facility entered Sullenberger's area and stood at the foot of his bed.

“He said ‘Are you ready to go?' I thought he meant ‘Are you ready to go home,'” Sullenberger said. “And he said ‘No, the lungs are yours.'”

Doctors determined that the organs — which were flown the night before from out-of-state to Pittsburgh International Airport and then transported via medical helicopter to the hospital — were not compatible with the other candidate, Sullenberger said.

“They told me they were a perfect match for me, size-wise, tissue type, everything ... just like they were meant to be,” he said “They told me they were clean and from a person in their 20s who had been on life support.”

Sullenberger wasted little time answering the surgeon's question.

“I looked at him and I told him ‘Take me wherever I'm supposed to go,'” he said. “I was ready, I was mentally ready. I held my wife's hand, squeezed it, gave her a kiss, and told her ‘I'll see you in a little bit.'”

In a matter of hours, the procedure was complete.

By Jan. 9, Sullenberger was removed from the ventilator which aided his breathing and he began successfully inhaling and exhaling on his own.

On Jan. 17, he went home.

“I can't put the feeling into words ... what it is like to be able to breath again,” he said, voice quivering with emotion. “This is a true gift from God.”

While Sullenberger continues to deal with the pain of the surgical incision made during the procedure, which involved the severing of his sternum, his recovery continues.

“It's a pain that I can handle for what I received,” he said.

It is at this time — when the homebound Sullenberger requires daily doses of anti-rejection, anti-viral and anti-fungal medications for the rest of his life — that he and his family are in the most need, Ladowitz said.

With that in mind, Ladowitz continues to coordinate fundraising efforts in honor of her father to benefit the National Foundation for Transplants, a Memphis-based organization which is working with her and fellow volunteers and supporters to help relieve Sullenberger's future medical expenses.

“I want to make it clear that we, as a family, are so grateful for all the contributions the community has made for my dad,” Ladowitz said. “However, I'm finding people didn't really understand what the money was needed for.”

The cost of the operation — which averages $800,000 — was covered by Sullenberger's insurance.

The needed financial assistance comes with costs of insurance co-payment fees for his required medication, along with the fact that Sullenberger — a machinist at Scottdale-based National Hydraulics Inc. — will be off work recovering for at least four months.

In addition, Dianne Sullenberger has taken an extended leave from her full-time job at Cintas Corp. to provide constant care for her husband.

“He's doing great, he's home, he's doing well. We were blessed by God,” she said. On Feb. 9, the Sullenbergers will hold a chicken and biscuit dinner fundraiser at Reunion Presbyterian Church.

Other fundraisers:

• Spring Break Special compliments of Rick Rega, Saloom-Rega Funeral Services — $5 per ticket for chance to win two charter airfare tickets to Punta Cana or Cancun donated by Carol Peitz Travel Services Inc., plus $500 cash. Winning number to be taken from first 3-digit PA Lottery at 7 p.m. March 20.

• Basket Bash scheduled for May 18 at East Huntingdon Volunteer Fire Department volunteer fire hall. Details to be announced.

Those interested in more information on scheduled events or in purchasing tickets are asked to contact Ladowitz at 412-582-9899.

A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or

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