With more than 110,000 people waiting for a lifesaving transplant, it’s more important than ever to register to become an organ donor. In fact, 22 people die every day waiting for a transplant because there are not enough organs available.

For lung transplant recipient Tammy Cook, the reality of waiting for a lifesaving transplant is something she knows all too well.

Tammy was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and emphysema. Cigarette smoking — a habit she’d picked up as a teenager — had destroyed the lining of the tiny air sacs in her lungs. She couldn’t breathe because air pockets formed in the damaged tissue. Within a year, Tammy was on oxygen and facing a long wait on the lung transplant waiting list.

We sat down with Tammy to learn more about her experience and the importance of organ donation.

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Q. How did you feel when you learned that you would need a lung transplant?

A. I was hesitant at first. I didn’t think I was that sick. I thought I would get better. That’s when everything started to go downhill. I was placed on the lung transplant waiting list in October 2017. At that point, I was in a wheelchair and very sick. I was also heartbroken at the thought of saying goodbye to my children.

Q. At what point did you start to feel more open to the idea of receiving a lung transplant

A. My mom met a gentleman from her church who’d received a transplant. We connected, and he really helped me through it. He showed me his scar and talked about how good he felt. He made it real to me. And he was almost 20 years older than me so I felt if he could do it, I could do it, too. Talking to someone who had gone through the process really eased my mind and helped me accept it.

Q. What was it like to wake up after surgery and know that you had finally received the lifesaving transplant you had been waiting for?

A. When I woke up, I couldn’t believe I was breathing without oxygen support for the first time in four years. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe someone else’s lungs were in my body doing the work. I was very emotional.

Q. Do you often think about your organ donor?

A. Yes. My donor was a 30-year-old Purple Heart recipient and father of two. I think about him often and am so thankful. I’m so grateful to be alive. I see this as my second chance, and I’m doing everything possible to take care of myself. I owe him the honor of caring for his lungs.

Q. What has motivated you to share your story during National Donate Life Month?

A. I feel like I have found my purpose in life. It’s important for people to know what a transplant can do for a person’s quality of life. I work in a busy diner where I get to connect and share my story with people all day long. I wear a necklace with a set of tiny silver lungs around my neck to remind me of this and to open the door for me to share my transplant experience with others.

For patients like Tammy, registering to become an organ donor is more than just checking a box. It’s a second chance at life.

We celebrate National Donate Life Month to help encourage Americans to register as organ, eye, and tissue donors and to honor those who have saved lives through the gift of donation.

To learn more or to register your decision to become an organ donor, visit UPMC.com/DonateLife.

About Transplant Services

Established in 1981, UPMC Transplant Services is one of the foremost organ transplant centers in the world. Our clinicians have performed more than 20,000 organ transplant procedures, including liver, kidney, pancreas, single and double lung, heart, and more. We are home to some of the world’s foremost transplant experts and have a long history of developing new antirejection therapies—so organ recipients can enjoy better health with fewer restrictions.