From lung transplant to the World Transplant Games

When Erinn Hoyt graduated from San Diego State University in 2012, she walked across the stage with a portable intravenous (IV) device hidden under her robe. She had spent the past 10 days in intensive care on a ventilator and was on the transplant list for new lungs. 

“I finished my finals in my hospital room and was discharged the day before my graduation,” said Hoyt. “Nothing was going to stop me from getting my diploma.” 

Hoyt was born with cystic fibrosis, a progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe. She grew up with a disorder that caused a chronic, severe cough, so it seemed ironic when she found her passion – swimming. 

“I started swimming at age 5 and instantly took to it, beating kids who were way older than me,” said Hoyt, who swam all through high school. “I never felt like cystic fibrosis held me back from an active lifestyle.” 

She believes being in such great shape is what kept her healthy for so long, but after quitting the sport she loved at age 17 – “I was burned out” – Hoyt’s health quickly declined. She began classes at SDSU, but her health never rebounded.

“At one point my oxygen level dropped to 79,” said Hoyt. A normal blood oxygen level is 95 to 100. Doctors at UC San Diego Health recommended a lung transplant.

More than other organs, the lungs are vulnerable to the environment, which raises the potential of complications and rejection. There is also a 50 percent mortality rate for the first five to seven years after transplantation, and approximately 30 percent of patients with lung transplants get infections, especially those with cystic fibrosis.

Patients need a strong support system during the recovery process after a lung transplant. Because Hoyt’s family lives in Northern California, she had the transplant performed at Stanford Health Care. “I wanted to be closer to home so my parents could take care of me,” said Hoyt.

After waiting for nearly three months, Hoyt received her new lungs. “I was so relieved,” said Hoyt. 

“It has been an honor to participate in Erinn’s care,” said Jack Boyd, M.D., clinical assistant professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and cardiothoracic surgeon at Stanford Health Care, who performed Hoyt’s transplant surgery. “Her strength and determination to do amazing things both before and after her lung transplant are an inspiration to others with cystic fibrosis and to the physicians and health care providers who work with patients with this condition.”

Mirroring her determination to graduate, Hoyt was standing and moving just a few days after surgery. She spent a month in pulmonary rehabilitation post-transplant. Five months later, she was back in her parent’s pool swimming laps.

“I was so weak at first; my arms felt like lead. My entire body ached, but I got stronger every day and fell in love with the sport again,” said Hoyt. “I was amazed that I could swim without coughing or getting out of breath. I then set a big goal for myself.”

Hoyt moved back to San Diego, and a year and a half after her transplant, she traveled to Spain for the 2017 World Transplant Games Federation. These are the Olympics for transplant patients, with participants from more than 60 countries. The goal, apart from the competition, is to raise public awareness of the importance and benefits of organ donation by demonstrating the levels of health and fitness that can be achieved post-transplant.

“Even though everyone was a transplant patient, it was very competitive. I was there to win. I didn’t just want a participation medal,” said Hoyt. “I was more nervous for the games than the transplant.”

She won five silver and two bronze medals in the swimming categories. She was the only competitor who was also a lung transplant recipient.

“I’m not an emotional person, but when I walked on the pool deck after receiving my medals, I was overwhelmed with tears of happiness in my eyes,” said Hoyt. “I trained so hard and made many sacrifices and it all paid off.”

A lung transplant does not cure cystic fibrosis because the defective gene that causes the disease is found in all cells of the body, except for the newly transplanted lungs. Hoyt is now receiving post-surgical care. 

Hoyt will soon start training for the 2019 games in Salt Lake City. She also joined a soccer team and hopes to find a job soon.

“I went from never thinking I would swim again to now having medals hanging in my bedroom,” said Hoyt. “To have this experience and watch my dreams come true is so amazing.”