Surgeons with UHealth – the University of Miami Health System successfully performed a double lung transplant on Venezuelan-born artist José Luis Rodriguez, known as “El Puma.”
The December surgery at Jackson Memorial Hospital was performed by University of Miami physicians Matthias Loebe, M.D., program director for thoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support; Nicolas Brozzi, M.D., UHealth heart and lung transplant surgeon; Neeraj Sinha, M.D., medical director of the lung transplant program; and Yiliam Rodriguez-Blanco, M.D., chief of cardiothoracic anesthesia.
The beloved singer shared his story at an April 20 news conference as part of April’s “National Donate Life Month” observance.
For decades, Rodriguez has entertained adoring fans on stages worldwide and on television screens in Spanish-language soap operas. But in the early 2000s, the now 75-year-old Rodriguez noticed physical changes affecting his body. His voice changed dramatically to a lower tone, and he could no longer travel to high-altitude cities such as Bogota or Mexico City.
As Rodriguez’s condition worsened, he went to see his primary physician in Miami, where he has lived since the 1990s. His doctor diagnosed him with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a disease that results in scarring of the lungs for an unknown reason. As the scarring gets worse, patients have difficulty breathing. It actually kills more Americans than breast cancer.
“Most patients with this disease, without proper treatment, don’t live past six months,” Loebe said.
“I remember my last performance on stage was in Barranquilla, Colombia, and I felt I was going to die,” recalled Rodriguez. “My heart was beating really fast not understanding what was wrong with me.”
Fans became more concerned about his failing health as they watched him perform with an oxygen tank to help him breathe. That is when Rodriguez began looking for solutions to improve his quality of life.
Daily physical activities such as breathing, walking, tying his shoes, and taking a shower became difficult. It was a challenge to even leave the house. That was when his primary doctor
referred him to the Miami Transplant Institute (MTI), an affiliation between the University of Miami Health System and Jackson Health System.
There, doctors determined that Rodriguez’s lung disease had advanced to the point that his only chance of survival was a double lung transplant.
“Patients and their families need to be aware of this disease and the limited treatment options,” said Loebe. “Early referral to a lung transplant program is the only way to prolong life and explore ways to improve quality of life.”
In order to be considered a good candidate for a transplant, patients must have social support and motivation, and they must live a healthy and active lifestyle. Once a major factor, age is not the only thing considered, even for a nearly 75-year-old like Rodriguez, said Sinha.
“It was uncommon for individuals above 70 years of age to receive a lung transplant,” said Sinha. “But as surgical techniques and post-transplant care have improved, more centers accept this patient population.”
Rodriguez was placed on the national transplant waiting list on August 25, 2017.
“This was God telling me to put a stop in life and take care of my health,” said Rodriguez. “As a performer I’ve traveled for over 50 years, giving my all to my fans wholeheartedly; but sometimes in life you have to put yourself first.”
Rodriguez was admitted to Jackson Memorial Hospital on December 16 when he received the call that a donor match was available. The surgery was performed on December 17. Rodriguez was able to return home on January 9.
Loebe, along with a multidisciplinary team of physicians, nurses, anesthesiologists, and staff, led a successful double lung transplant operation.
“It is a blessing just to be able to breathe again,” said Rodriguez. “You can go without food or water for days, but you cannot go a minute without breathing.”
During his post-transplant recovery, Rodriguez recently celebrated his 75th birthday. He remains focused on improving his health, body and spirit before returning to work in April of 2019, when he plans to go on tour, as well as develop a documentary of his life.
“His voice is intact,” said Brozzi. “There is no medical reason why he should not have exactly the same voice he had before and be able to do with that voice exactly the same things he did before.”
Rodriguez returned for the April 20 news conference to thank the doctors and nurses who cared for him and to urge others who are experiencing issues with their lungs to seek care immediately.
“My advice to others going through something similar is that transplant is the answer,” said Rodriguez. “It’s like dying and coming back to life – it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, but I overcame this with patience, faith, and hope.”
MTI is the only center in South Florida to perform every type of organ transplant. The center has performed more than 150 lung-related transplants since the first one at Jackson Memorial Hospital in 1996. According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), MTI has done more than 11,000 transplants of all organ types, positioning it to be one of the world’s leading transplant centers since its opening in 1970.
A year after transplant surgery, if both parties are willing, UNOS can facilitate a meeting between a recipient and the donor’s family. Rodriguez says he would like to meet the family to thank them in person.