Wisconsin winters are difficult for almost everyone, but for Dan Bretl, of Brookfield, they were so unbearable he was forced to become homebound for the season. That’s because Dan was suffering from a progressive lung disease, and his lungs could not function in extreme cold.

“I was a nonsmoker and always very healthy and active, but my breathing troubles started in 2008 and eventually became so difficult I was on oxygen all the time,” Dan said. “I had to leave the career I’d worked in for 30 years and couldn’t travel to see my adult children who live out of state. In winter, I couldn’t breathe when I stepped outside.”

bretl-double-lung-transplantDan initially received diagnoses of severe asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but his doctors could not find an underlying cause. Over the next four years, Dan’s condition worsened. Then, he received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis that was attacking his lungs and a rare condition called obliterative bronchiolitis. The illness causes the small airways in the lungs, or bronchioles, to narrow, leading to shortness of breath.

“Obliterative bronchiolitis is a rare condition — only about 1 percent of lung transplant patients have this diagnosis — and it may progress rapidly,” said pulmonologist Kenneth Presberg, MD. “Dan’s presentation was unique in that it initially affected his lungs rather than his joints. In Dan’s case, the disease was life-threatening.”

Dan’s condition was worsening quickly; he had multiple bouts of pneumonia and a flu that led to a five-week hospitalization.

“When I couldn’t fight off the flu, I knew it was time to consider a double-lung transplant,” he said. Dan’s research led him to the Transplant Center, a joint venture of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital. In June 2015, he was added to the waiting list for a double-lung transplant. Incredibly, Dan received a call from transplant coordinator, Jennifer Peterson, RN, just 10 days after being listed, with news that a match was found.

“I thought it was a joke at first; I couldn’t believe it happened so fast,” Dan said. Cardiothoracic Surgeon George Haasler, MD, performed Dan’s 11-hour surgery.

“When I woke up, I could breathe again. I could absolutely feel the difference right away,” he said. Dan’s recovery had several challenges, but a multidisciplinary team of experts guided him each step of the way.

“The best aspect of my care was that after my surgery, I could get in touch with my team any time,” Dan said. “They are fantastic. There was one point when I was traveling over a weekend and my blood pressure dropped quickly. Within two minutes I was on the phone with a nurse at Froedtert Hospital and got the care I needed. I had pneumonia but recovered in just two days because I had healthy lungs.”

“Our program’s emphasis on continuity of care allows for very specific patient-centered management approaches,” Dr. Presberg said. “Providers are very familiar with their patients, even minor details of their medical histories, allowing them to treat each patient optimally. This helps our patients’ outcomes tremendously.”

“My family and I are very thankful we chose this program and this team,” Dan said. “I am able to do so much more since my transplant. I can go golfing and fishing, and I enjoy being outside. I’m going hunting this year for the first time in eight years.”

Most important, he said, is his ability to see his children and grandchildren. “We went to Dallas three times this year and saw my grandkids,” he said. “I also visited my daughter in Denver and went hiking in the Rocky Mountains. In September, my youngest daughter got married in Indiana. I was able to walk her down the aisle and dance with her during the reception. I couldn’t have done any of that without my transplant.”

Of course, Dan has another important individual toward whom he feels a great deal of gratitude.

“I wrote a letter to my donor’s family, though I don’t know his name,” Dan said. “I tried to say thank you so much and how important this gift has been to me. It’s hard to put into words that I am thankful they allowed their loss to be an amazing gift to me. I hope someday I can tell them in person.”

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