Geraldine White’s symptoms came on quickly and in the most inconvenient place – on an international flight to Africa. The retired nurse was traveling from her home in Florida to Senegal to visit her son when she was struck with “excruciating” leg pain. Geraldine spent the entire flight walking up and down the aisle.
While in Senegal, the pain migrated from her leg to her chest.
“I was playing catch with my son,” she says. “When I raised my arm to throw the ball, I had searing sharp chest pains. The pain in my leg subsided immediately.”
A few days later, she collapsed while sight-seeing and couldn’t breathe for a few seconds. When her breath returned, it was harder to breathe and got worse throughout the trip.
“I knew something was horribly wrong,” she says. “I was getting weaker and weaker and losing weight rapidly.”
Geraldine had lost so much weight during her trip that immigration officers didn’t think that she was the same woman pictured in her passport.
Seeking an Answer
As soon as she got home, she went to see her doctor and was eventually admitted to the hospital.
Doctors diagnosed a pulmonary embolism, a sudden and potentially deadly blockage in a lung artery, usually due to a blood clot that travels to the lung from a vein in the leg.
This explained why Geraldine’s symptoms moved suddenly from her leg to her chest. Doctors also noticed discoloration in her lungs, which they thought might be due to a severe form of pneumonia.
Even after treating the pulmonary embolism, Geraldine continued to decline. Within a few days, she was placed on life support.
“I felt like my throat was on fire, my breathing was labored, and I had a fever, but none of the treatments helped,” she said.
Finally, a pulmonologist discovered the cause of her illness – a rare lung condition called bronchiolitis obliterans with organizing pneumonia, or BOOP. It occurs when the small airways and air exchange sac become inflamed with connective tissue. This explained the discoloration in her lungs.
“Only one doctor in the entire hospital knew what it was,” Geraldine said. “If he hadn’t looked at my biopsy, I would not be here today.”
She finally had a diagnosis, but the treatment of high-dose steroids was nearly unbearable.
“Each day I was failing,” she said. “I went partially bald, lost my vision, couldn’t walk and needed extra oxygen to breathe.”
Finding National Jewish Health
As part of her care, Geraldine was seeing an eye doctor on a regular basis.
“She looked at me and saw a glare in my eyes – she said I was deteriorating,” Geraldine said. “She said to me, ‘Geri, I want you to go to a special hospital called National Jewish Health. It’s far away, but I want you to go.’”
Within a few days, Geraldine was on a plane to Denver for an appointment with Gregory P. Downey, MD, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health.
“Dr. Downey saved my life,” she said. “He spent hours interviewing me and running tests. Then, he told me what I needed to do.”
After an 18-month treatment protocol, Geraldine’s health improved dramatically. She continued to see Dr. Downey for six years, and he worked with her doctors in Florida.
“If anything went wrong, I would call Dr. Downey,” she said. “All those years, he called me back immediately – it didn’t matter if it was over the holidays or if he was traveling.”
Geraldine eventually moved to Dallas, where Dr. Downey released her to the care of her local doctor.
Now, after years of following medical protocol and lugging oxygen everywhere she went, her lung scans show new tissue growth and her glaucoma has cleared.
“I am so overwhelmed by being healthy,” Geraldine said. “Before, I had no quality of life; I signed a do-not-resuscitate order. I have now had to change that.”
Geraldine is no longer on supplemental oxygen and her frequency of doctor’s visits has decreased dramatically. She says that at 76, she is living without limitations.
“I did not want to live, and now I am at the best time in my life,” she said. “It is because I went to the best, and I had the best doctor. I share my story quite often, and encourage everyone I meet with a respiratory problem to contact National Jewish Health.”
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