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Family holds surprise celebration for Cindy on the 20th anniversary of her lung transplant

On July 26, double-lung transplant recipient Cindy Torgerson went in for a routine follow-up appointment—only to be surprised at the clinic by three generations of her family.
Cindy Torgerson had a rare genetic condition affected her ability to breathe. 20 years ago, she received a double-lung transplant at University of Minnesota Medical Center. On Thursday, her family celebrated this milestone with a surprise party.

Cindy Torgerson’s follow-up visits to the University of Minnesota Health Clinics and Surgery Center follow a familiar routine. That’s not surprising, when you consider that she has been a University of Minnesota Health patient for two decades.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary at her July 26 appointment with Pulmonologist Marshall Hertz, MD. But as she and her husband Jerry left the waiting room to head to an exam room, she noticed they were taking a different route than usual. They stopped in front of a door, and Jerry gestured at her to open it. Torgerson turned the handle.

“Surprise! Happy Birthday!”

Torgerson couldn’t believe her eyes. Her three daughters, two of her grandchildren, Marshall Hertz, and her transplant care coordinator were all waiting to congratulate her on the 20th anniversary of her lung transplant—the date her family refers to as a “birthday.”

A rare genetic condition

Torgerson’s lung troubles started slowly.

After experiencing difficulty breathing in the winter months, she was diagnosed with asthma. When it continued to worsen, she went to a specialist and then eventually to a pulmonologist.  Torgerson was eventually diagnosed with a rare, genetic lung disease called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which often causes emphysema. Without a double lung transplant, her condition would continue to deteriorate.

Torgerson was on the lung transplant waiting list for two years before she received the call.

“I remember walking into the room at ten minutes to midnight and finding Cindy on the phone. She said, ‘It’s the University. They have my lungs,’” Jerry Torgerson recalled.

Her daughters remember the moment well, too. “I remember looking at the alarm clock and seeing 1,2,3,4. 12:34. I will never forget it,” said Kim Torgerson, Cindy’s daughter.

Torgerson will never forget what it was like entering the operating room. Before the surgery, she only had 10 percent lung capacity. She was almost out of time.

“There were 15 or 20 people in there waiting for me, each one [tasked] with a specific job. I praise the Lord for the gifts he gave everyone who has been working with me for the past 20 years,” she said.

It takes a village

Nearly 200 have been a part of Torgerson’s care team throughout the years. On the day of Cindy’s 20th anniversary transplant appointment and surprise party, Transplant Care Coordinator Randy Wisdorf, BSN and Hertz represented that team.

“The success of this program—and success for each of our patients—would not be possible without each and every member of this team. There are a lot of people involved, doing very complicated jobs very well,” Hertz said.

Today, University of Minnesota Health care teams perform more than 50 transplants each year, which makes the institution one of the nation’s highest-volume lung transplant centers. The center is also one of the most experienced in the world, tallying more than 1,000 lung transplants since the program began in 1986.

Learn more about University of Minnesota Health Transplant Center.

A 20-year journey

Organ donation practice itself has also changed throughout the years. Third-party organ procurement organizations—such as LifeSource in the upper Midwest—help connect people in need with matching organs from donors, and are a key component in the growth of the nation’s transplant programs.

“I can’t say enough about my donor family,” said Torgerson, who reflected on her experience during her surprise party on Thursday, July 26. Her 16-year-old granddaughter, Lily Engle, knelt down beside her with tears in her eyes. They linked hands. “She was only your age,” Torgerson whispered, touching Lily’s hair.

The enormity of Torgerson’s transplant journey all will never leave the family. Each day—no matter if it is ordinary or extraordinary—is another day the family gets to spend together.