When Deborah Schwartz looks at the painting she bought in Denver, it brings back memories of the visits to National Jewish Health that changed her life and restored her health.
More than eight years ago, Deborah learned from her doctors in Pennsylvania that she had a lung condition called Mycobacterium avium complex, or MAC. “I found out by accident when I had a chest x-ray,” she said. “They found nodules in my chest and diagnosed me with MAC.”
MAC is one strain of the nontuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) family of bacteria. How and why people become infected with NTM is not clear. The germs, which are related to the tuberculosis germ, are found easily in water and soil, but they do not affect most people.
The diagnosis came as a surprise to Deborah, who was very active and didn’t have any symptoms. After monitoring the nodules for several months, the doctors put her on a cocktail of antibiotics.
NTM infections are also challenging to treat because they require multiple antibiotics for extended periods, usually months to years. Deborah took the antibiotics for two and a half years, when she began to experience side effects from the medication. She had numbness in her fingers and tremors, and her doctors took her off the antibiotics. A year after stopping the treatment she developed a chronic cough, even occasionally coughing up blood.
Deborah eventually went back on antibiotics, but her cough persisted. “My doctors kept telling me to go to Denver for treatment.”
After more than six years since her diagnosis, Deborah came to National Jewish Health for a week-long appointment in August 2010. Charles L. Daley, MD, Chief of the Division of Mycobacterial and Respiratory Infections, treated Deborah.
“The doctors were so thorough, and the clinic runs precisely like a finely tuned watch," she said. “Dr. Daley said I was a candidate for lung resection and recommended I come back to Denver for surgery. But, I was hesitant to return for surgery – I was afraid I would never go home.”
It was on that trip that she first saw the painting of a broken Anasazi Indian pot in the desert that now hangs in her home.
She returned to Pennsylvania, hopeful that she would be able to have the surgery closer to home.
“The doctors said they would have to cut me open to get to that part of the lung,” Deborah said. “They wanted to put me back on antibiotics for six months before doing the surgery. But, I had already been on antibiotics for six years.”
She consulted her pulmonologist in Pennsylvania, and he recommended she return to Denver for the surgery.
Deborah was put in touch with John D. Mitchell, MD, who is the Chief of Thoracic Surgery at the University of Colorado Hospital. Dr. Mitchell consults with doctors at National Jewish Health, and he collaborated with Dr. Daley on Deborah’s care.
She returned to Denver in January, and the doctors determined that she needed two surgeries to remove the damaged parts of her lungs and control the infection. The surgeries would be done thoracoscopically, which is less invasive and has a shorter recovery time.
Just a few days after surgery on the right side of her lung, Deborah was feeling well enough to go shopping. The painting she saw in August was still in the store, and Deborah decided to buy it as a “souvenir of Denver.”
In March 2011, she came back for the second surgery, this time on the left side of her lung. Two days after the surgery, she was out of the hospital and visiting with clinic patients at National Jewish Health.
Today, Deborah’s cough and infection have cleared up and she is feeling great. She is active in a local MAC group and has spoken to people from different parts of the country who are living with the condition.
“I think it’s important to talk to someone who has been through it, who feels good and has a positive attitude,” she said.
“Everything about National Jewish Health is amazing, and you know that people are being helped in the best way possible,” she said. “There is no other place in the world like it.”
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