By Kim West
Thula Carter is embarking on the trip of her lifetime when she departs her riverfront home in Limestone County to travel next week to Pennsylvania.
Carter, 68, is leaving Tuesday with her husband, J.V. Carter, after being notified last week that the Pittsburgh hospital added her to its lung transplant list. She received a pulmonary fibrosis diagnosis in January 2011.
Carter spent Thursday afternoon exercising at Athens-Limestone Hospital’s Cardio-Pulmonary Rehabilitation Center as part of her regular routine under the supervision of respiratory therapist Shelley Shelton and program director Jennifer Horton.
“Pulmonary fibrosis is a lung disease, and most of the time it doesn’t get any better — the patient will eventually pass away unless they get on a transplant list,” said Horton. “Ms. Thula worked herself into shape to get on the transplant list in Pittsburgh because (other hospitals) wouldn’t take her because of her underlying conditions and age. But then she discovered Pittsburgh accepted her with open arms.”
Horton said Carter altered her diet and lost 40 pounds after exercising three times per week at the rehab center and working out at home. Carter boosted her initial rehab time from 30 to 45 minutes to 2 hours in the past 18 months.
Carter, an avid gardener and walker, said she knew she needed to seek medical help when routine strolls with a friend and walking up her basement steps caused her to be short of breath.
She spends the first part of her rehab workouts in the adjoining East Limestone Wellness Center, where she walks on the treadmill for 3 miles in 44 minutes and 30 seconds, bikes to increase her cardiac rate and sometimes lifts weights.
Then she heads to the rehab room to use the NUSTEP machine, 5-pound weights, hand-bike and the multi-press incline machine.
“This actually isn’t to work her lungs but to strengthen her accessory muscles that help her lungs push air out,” Horton said.
Horton and Carter said lung transplant officials use certain criteria to screen patients before adding them to the donor list. Horton said a patient must not be “too sick because you’ll never survive the surgery and not too well to be put on the list.”
A successful donor match “depends on the size of your lungs, blood type and weight,” Carter said. “If they find one that matches (the criteria), they will call me and I have four hours to get there.”
The Carters live in the Coxey community, but they plan to stay in Pittsburgh “indefinitely,” said a buoyant Thula as she paused from a spin on the exercise bike to answer questions and greet fellow rehab patients. She said if she gets transplant surgery, she would stay in recovery at UPMC for three months.
Carter said a hospital official told her it could be as little as two weeks before a match is found. But she added a Pittsburgh patient told her he has been waiting on the lung transplant list for six months.
“I was excited when they called me, and it was something for a long time I prayed for, and something everyone else prayed for, too,” she said. “I want to thank Jennifer and Shelley for pushing and encouraging me when I needed it. They always told me, ‘You can do it, Ms. Thula.’”