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Transplant Choice A Leap Of Faith For Dancer… New Lungs Bring New Hope

Transplant Choice A Leap Of Faith For Dancer

By Tara Deering, Tribune staff reporter

January 4, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

When Israel Sanchez takes the stage with the Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater, the audience can't see the silver oxygen tank waiting in the wings.

For just three minutes, Sanchez, 38, is like all the other dancers in the ensemble. He steps, turns and even takes his bow without having to push an oxygen tube away from his face.

For those few moments, he's not No. 18 on a waiting list for a bilateral lung transplant. He's a dancer.

"I'm able to do one or two numbers. I can't do a three-hour show without my oxygen," Sanchez said. "I'm not able to do a lot, but the little I do is a lot for me. For me, it's like I did the whole show because I get tired."

Sanchez's life was crammed with work and dance before he became ill. When not dancing for Ensemble Espanol, he worked full time as a sales assistant at the Hyatt Regency Chicago hotel and part time as a bartender.

All of that came to a halt in April 2002, when he found himself in the hospital with pneumonia. Doctors gave him antibiotics, but they didn't work. The fluid stayed in his lungs and the pneumonia kept coming back. A month later, he was in the hospital again. This time he stayed 13 days.

After several tests, Sanchez learned he would never get rid of the fluid in his lungs because he suffered from a rare form of bronchiectasis, a disorder that causes bronchial tubes to enlarge and form pockets where infection can gather. Various infections and, in some cases, congenital or inherited deficiencies can cause the condition, according to the American Lung Association.

A few months later, in July, doctors placed Sanchez on oxygen. "You have two choices: You can either stay on oxygen your whole life or you can get a lung transplant and then it's gone forever," he said.

Looking down at the silver and green oxygen tank he calls his pet O2, Sanchez said he chose the transplant.

"Believe it or not, when I ride the CTA people ask, `Is that oxygen?'" he said. "Especially elderly people--they look at me; then they look at the tank because they can't believe that a young person can be carrying this."

Without a transplant, Sanchez said he would never be able to accomplish his dream of dancing in the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.

Dancing has always seemed to come easy to Sanchez. At age 12, he won a spot to dance in the 1985 Pan-American Games in Puerto Rico, where his family is from. He became involved in Ensemble Espanol more than nine years ago as a student at Northeastern Illinois University, where he received several dance scholarships. He danced with the company at the 1994 World Cup opening ceremonies at Soldier Field.

"He's very talented," Dame Libby Komaiko, founder and artistic director of Ensemble Espanol, said of Sanchez. "He's very conscious of technique and is always working to achieve perfection."

As a senior dancer with the 25-member troupe, Sanchez once danced in the forefront with flair. Now he helps more behind the scenes, usually serving as an extra or helping with quick costume changes during performances. But during rehearsals, Sanchez can be found stretching in his chair or warming up on the barre with O2 at his side.

Komaiko said Sanchez has inspired the other dancers.

"Right now, he can't do what he's capable of and what he knows in his heart and mind he can do," she said. "Accepting these kinds of chronic illnesses is not easy to do. He does everything that he can possibly do that's not taxing."

Sanchez's doctors say staying active will help keep him healthy.

Sanchez, who has been on the transplant list only two months, carries a pager in case the hospital calls. The wait for people needing lung transplants in the Illinois region typically is about 18 months, said Dr. Charles Alex, one of the physicians caring for Sanchez at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.

"Some people say that this is so terrible that it's happened to you," Sanchez said. "But I don't see it that way because I'm not the first one and I won't be the last one. There are people in worse places than me. I worry about the person who's No. 1 on the list because their chances of living are much slimmer."

If the transplant surgery is successful with no complications, Sanchez could be off the oxygen a couple of weeks into recovery, Alex said. Since 1984, doctors at Loyola have performed 190 bilateral lung transplants, including 12 last year, a hospital spokesman said.

"Hopefully, after the surgery he will be able to dance again like he did before," he said.

Sanchez hopes the same. But for now his immediate goals have changed from dancing at the Olympics to maintaining good health for the operation.

"My goal--sorry, O2," Sanchez said, looking down and jokingly petting the oxygen tank, "is to get the transplant and say goodbye to O2."

New Lungs Bring New Hope

Transplant Boosts Chicago Dancer

By Tara Deering

Tribune staff reporter

January 29, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

January 29, 2004

Because he is 5 feet 7 inches and the organs matched him best, Israel Sanchez got a double-lung transplant in early January ahead of others on a waiting list.

And now he hopes to resume dancing full time this summer with the Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater, in residence at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.

"Ultimately, he came higher on the list because he was a lot taller and he was a better match for the size of the donor," said Dr. Thomas Hinkamp, a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon for Loyola University Health System.

"These lungs went in and worked beautifully."

Sanchez, 38, who was featured in a Tribune report Jan. 4, suffered a rare form of bronchiectasis, a disorder that causes bronchial tubes to enlarge and form pockets where infection can gather. He had been 18th on a waiting list for a double-lung transplant.

On average, the wait for such a transplant is 18 months for people in the Illinois region, doctors said.

But after less than three months on the list at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Sanchez got the transplant on Jan. 8.

The illness had prevented the once-active Sanchez from doing many of the things he enjoyed--not only dancing, but also working as a sales assistant and part-time bartender. Since July 2002, he had needed an oxygen tank to help him breathe.

Now, less than three weeks after his transplant surgery, the slender, silver oxygen tank he affectionately referred to as his pet O2 sits by itself in a corner of his Edgewater apartment.

"O2 has to stay one more month just in case I have an emergency or something," he said. "Otherwise, it will be our last time together."

Sanchez got the call to go to the hospital on the morning of Jan. 8. "I was in bed sleeping when they paged me on my pager at 7:22 a.m.," he said.

"The agent said I have good news for you. I have a pair of new lungs for you."

Once at the hospital, doctors spent the day testing Sanchez to ensure he was a match for the donor lungs.

Doctors began the eight-hour transplant surgery later that day, and three days later, Sanchez woke in his hospital bed breathing with his transplanted lungs. He took his first breath without the help of an oxygen tank four days after the surgery.

"At first, I had a little anxiety attack because I've never been so clean, meaning all the air was going in and out like nothing," he said. "It was a little overwhelming because I've never been able to breathe that well."

Loyola, which has the fourth-largest lung-transplant program in the country and the largest in Illinois, has performed 390 lung transplants--191 doubles and 199 singles--since the program began in 1986, hospital officials said.

Sanchez calls himself lucky for getting the transplant as soon as he did. His mother, Gladys Ortiz, who traveled from Puerto Rico to help him in his recovery, said it was a miracle.

"It has been God's doing," she said. "For me, it's a dream come true."

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