Her name was Mary Denise Rensel. I didn’t have to look it up for this story. I never forgot it. In 1988, I traveled to a Fresno hospital with medical reporter Kathy Freeman. We were going to visit with a Bakersfield woman with cystic fibrosis who was in the end stage of the disease and was waiting and hoping for a new, experimental surgery that was her only chance of survival. I don’t know what I expected to see when I walked into the room, but it wasn’t this. Aren’t really sick people supposed to look that way, with tubes and beeping machines and monitors and that thing you see on the TV shows that pumps up and down and makes that “woosh, woosh, woosh” sound? Mary Denise did not look sick. There were no machines pumping and beeping. No massive tangle of tubes and IV bags. If not for the oxygen tube attached to her nose, I might have mistaken her for a nurse taking a break and said “Oh, excuse me, I have the wrong room.” But Mary Denise was sick. Really sick. Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disease in which the body’s organs, primarily the lungs, produce thick mucous that interferes with the ability to breathe and digest food. At the time, it was almost 100 percent fatal. But there was new hope for Mary Denise. Earlier that year, surgeons in Canada had performed the first successful double lung transplant, the only hope for survival. Mary Denise was on the list to join the very first group of patients to have a double lung transplant for cystic fibrosis. And she was out of time. Her doctors said she would not live to 30. She was 29 and had already lived well beyond expectations.
Kathy Freeman was a tough-as-nails reporter who was all business when it came to working a story. It’s a good skill to have. Don’t get involved, don’t get emotional. Your job is to do the story, and that’s it. That didn’t work with Kathy and Mary Denise. What started as an interview gave way to something else. They laughed. They told stories. They talked like two friends who had known each other all their lives. This is what I remember about that day. Kathy and Mary Denise becoming friends. Mary Denise went home to Pennsylvania, where she grew up and graduated from college, to wait for a transplant. She would be the fourth person to have the transplant at Pittsburgh’s Presbyterian University Hospital. When a set of lungs became available, Mary Denise entered the hospital and Kathy headed to Pittsburgh to report on the surgery. We had it all planned. We had already introduced Bakersfield to Mary Denise Rensel, the beautiful young artist who was about to help make medical history. Kathy would cover the surgery and recovery, then we would follow her as she resumed a life if not normal, one that was greatly improved. I would be the photographer. As you might be able to tell, she sort of stole my heart. Mary Denise was absolutely certain the surgery would be a success. Save for her failing lungs, she was in otherwise good condition to withstand such a rigorous surgery. She did not need a new heart to go with the lungs – some do – and that increased her chances. She joked that she hoped her scar wouldn’t keep her from wearing a bikini. She was taking sign language classes and planned to teach art to deaf students.
On December 1, 1988, doctors operated on Mary Denise, removing her ravaged and failing lungs and replacing them with a donor’s. Almost from the beginning, things would go wrong. She went back into surgery later that evening to control bleeding. The next day, she went back into the operating room again, this time because of a clotting issue. On January 10, 1989, almost six weeks after her surgery, Mary Denise Rensel died of respiratory failure at Presbyterian University Hospital in Pittsburgh. Two of the first three double lung transplant patients had survived, and we all thought Mary Denise would be the third. I’ve never spoken with Kathy about how Mary Denise’s death impacted her. I know it did, and that’s enough.
About eight months after Mary Denise Rensel died, The Bakersfield Californian hired a new graphic artist. Kent Kuehl came from Visalia with his wife, Arely, 3-year-old son, Kent, and a daughter, Tiffany, 6. Tiffany had cystic fibrosis. Kent and I became friends, and over the years, of course, I watched Tiffany transform from a little girl to a teenager and into a young woman. And I saw Kent endure so many trips to the hospital with Tiffany. Each time I would see Tiffany at a party or a Californian event, I would remember Mary Denise Rensel and hope that Tiffany would not meet a similar fate. Early in 2009, Tiffany got married. Then, on October 30 of that year, she entered USC Keck Medical Center to have a double lung transplant operation, the same one that Mary Denise had 21 years earlier. Twenty one years is a long time in the medical world. The brand new, experimental surgery that Mary Denise did not survive is now relatively common, though still dangerous and risky. Between 55 and 70 percent of double lung transplant patients are now alive five years after their surgeries. Of course, the age and overall health going into the surgery plays a big factor. Like Mary Denise, Tiffany, who had her surgery at 25, was otherwise healthy. She did not need a new heart. There is still no cure for cystic fibrosis, but the transplants greatly improve and expand life expectancy. Tiffany survived her surgery, is happily married and is doing well, more than five years after her transplant. I like to think a young lady named Mary Denise Rensel, the girl whose name I never forgot, had a little something to do with that.