When a doctor suddenly becomes the patient with a life-threatening illness, Mayo Clinic’s commitment to high-quality medical care that puts the needs of the patient first takes on fresh perspective, especially as it relates to the principle of compassionate care, which is a hallmark of Mayo Clinic.
Such was the case when Joseph J. Tepas III, M.D., a 68-year-old pediatric surgeon in Jacksonville, Florida, learned that the wheezing and shortness of breath he was experiencing turned out to be idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a potentially life-threatening disease that occurs from unexplained scarring of the lung tissue.
In addition to doing pediatric surgery, Dr. Tepas is a practicing trauma surgeon and surgical intensivist. He is the medical director of the region’s only pediatric trauma unit, and, as a retired captain in the Navy Reserve, appreciates the critical importance of maintaining a personal commitment to health and fitness. Dr. Tepas had always lived a healthy lifestyle and, other than some occasional allergy symptoms, never had any significant health issues. But lying dormant in his otherwise healthy body was a disease that was quietly scarring and shutting his lungs down.
“When I saw the CT scan, I could clearly see that both my lungs were pretty much gone,” says Dr. Tepas. “My otherwise healthy lifestyle and physical fitness were masking the disease that was silently killing me.”
The speed in which Dr. Tepas discovered, and was ultimately diagnosed and treated for his serious illness, was impressive. Dr. Tepas first experienced his symptoms on a trip to Washington, D.C., in mid-June and figured the inhaler his doctor prescribed would manage the wheezing and shortness of breath. When it became clear what he was experiencing was more serious, he underwent a series of tests and discovered his shocking diagnosis – idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and acute interstitial pneumonia (Hamman-Rich Syndrome, a rare form of rapidly progressive end-stage lung disease). It soon became obvious that he was going to need a double lung transplant if he was going to survive. Given the accelerating deterioration of his lung function, Dr. Tepas was emergently referred to Mayo Clinic in Florida for a transplant evaluation. Within 36 hours of arrival, he had received a full assessment of his condition and was immediately put on the UNOS transplant list.
With his condition dire, he was very fortunate to get some good news after only two days on the list – a new pair of lungs from a 24-year-old matching donor had become available. Dr. Tepas was transplanted on July 21, 2014, less than six weeks after he first realized he was seriously ill. He was released from the hospital just two weeks later. “I think that may be a record,” says Dr. Tepas. “The fact that I was in good physiological shape was a big factor in helping speed up my immediate post-surgical recovery. The rapidity with which a donor was found was nothing short of miraculous!”
And although he works at a different regional hospital in Jacksonville, Dr. Tepas had nothing but praise for Mayo Clinic and its transplant capabilities.
“Mayo does it right, from the procedural training of its staff to their consistent reflection of genuine interest in the patient’s well-being,” he says. “My care was spectacular across the board, from my surgeon and pulmonary team to the nurses and technicians who took care of me throughout my stay in the hospital. I’m truly appreciative to all of them, not just for the excellent care I received, but for the constant concern and compassion with which it was always provided.”
There is an interesting twist to this story relating to the importance of organ donation. Dr. Tepas was the trauma surgeon on call in 1998 when a 17-year-old Jacksonville teenager named Katie Caples was brought to him in critical condition after a motor vehicle crash. Although Katie passed away as a result of her brain injuries, she donated her organs to five different recipients (ages 9 to 62), since she was a registered organ donor. Her father, David Caples, started the Katie Caples Foundation and its annual organ donation awareness and education event, The Katie Ride for Life, in 2005. It is held annually in Amelia Island, Florida, and raises money to educate high school students in Northeast Florida about the importance of organ donation. Mayo Clinic has been a major sponsor and supporter of the event for the past several years.
“In many ways, Katie Caples was the personification of my own daughter, who happens also to be named Katie, who was also a cross country runner, and who went to the same high school,” says Dr. Tepas. “I’ve maintained a relationship with the Caples family since the accident and have participated in several of the Katie Ride events over the years. Mayo Clinic’s involvement as a sponsor and active participant in that event is a natural, given its expertise in organ transplantation and interest in spreading the word about the importance of organ donation. Little did I know that someday the same transplant service that works so many miracles on a daily basis would reach out to save the life of the surgeon who had initially tried to save Katie.”