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Cynthia Kear's Story: Interstitial Lung Disease

For “One-Speed Cynthia,” even getting a lung transplant came quickly

For Cynthia Kear, a nickname given by her friends, “one-speed Cynthia,” captures her fast pace, high energy and keen sense of adventure.

A partner with Belle Meade Vacations, Kear has turned her life-long passion for traveling the globe into a profession. She’s always on the move and has visited remote locations and busy cities in 50 countries, including India, Bhutan, Russia, China and nations throughout Europe.

However, it was during travels back home in the United States when Kear, who had been healthy all her life, noticed the vague symptoms that foreshadowed her first hospital admission ever, to get a lung transplant.

An "odd" sensation in her chest began her search for answers

At first, the symptoms that started while on a trip to Chicago seemed like just a winter cold. She began to worry it was something more when she noticed an odd sensation in her chest. When she got back to Nashville, she made an appointment with her primary care doctor. He knew about her extensive world travels, so he prescribed antibiotics in case she’d picked up a bacterial infection along the way.

The odd sensation went away.

“A shot and a Z-pack and I was great till the next year.”

Her calendar stayed busy with travel, and while in Boston, she was hit with a big gust of wind as she stepped out of her hotel. The weird feeling in her chest returned. The next day, she went to Cape Cod, hoping she would feel better. Three days later, she flew to Jamaica, thinking the warm humid air would help. Neither place offered relief.

Back in Nashville, she squeezed in a trip to her doctor before spending 2 weeks in Europe. She got another course of antibiotics and a steroid injection. This time, though, her breathing problems continued, so she soon saw her allergist. Tests confirmed that she had interstitial lung disease (ILD), an umbrella term for diseases that cause scarring in the lungs.

She was referred to a pulmonologist but at the urging of a co-worker who was familiar with Dr. Robert Miller, a lauded pulmonologist at Vanderbilt Health, she came to Vanderbilt Health for answers. Kear told Miller that there were times she couldn’t catch her breath, even when sitting around and talking with friends. She was coughing frequently. Miller prescribed medications and steroids to keep her stable.

But looming in her future, a last resort, was a lung transplant.

Coming to Vanderbilt would prove to be an important step in her journey to recovery. Even as she was under Miller’s care for 18 months, he and his colleagues were planning and launching the Vanderbilt Lung Institute (VLI), which offers a unique approach to lung care.

Q&A with Kear and Her Doctor

"I knew I was getting worse"

In March of 2020 – as the COVID-19 pandemic sent the travel business into a tailspin – Kear knew Miller would bring up lung transplant again because she could tell she was getting worse.

She was right – by June, he referred her to colleagues in VLI. This specialized program brings together pulmonologists, thoracic surgeons and other experts in treating all lung disease, including specialists in the Vanderbilt Transplant Center.

“I knew I was getting worse,” Kear said.

“Everyone knew, but I was the last to admit it because that made it real.”

A formal assessment including 24 appointments over 10 days determined she was a good candidate for transplant.

When Dr. Ciara Shaver, a pulmonologist and critical care specialist, describes the ideal lung transplant candidate, it is as if she were describing Kear specifically.

“Motivation and being goal oriented – patients who really want to fight for their health,” Shaver said. “They need a strong support system. It can be family or friends but they need an army of people to get them through the tough parts and celebrate the good parts.”

Kear’s only hurdle left before going on the list for a new lung can be a challenging step: getting insurance approval for coverage of costs associated with surgery and rehabilitative care. Her insurance provider approved the coverage, and on Sept. 17, 2020, at 12:20 p.m. Kear ended a call telling her she was being placed on the waiting list for lung transplant.

Cynthia Kear, lung transplant recipient on treadmill during pulmonary rehab session surrounded by her care team..
Cynthia Kear during a pulmonary rehabilitation session surrounded by her rehabilitation team.

She almost didn't take the call

She headed for a quick lunch before her 1 p.m. physical therapy appointment. At 12:40 p.m., her phone rang. She didn’t recognize the number.

The doctors had said she should answer every phone call because it could be the Vanderbilt team letting her know that a lung was available. Time would be of the essence – she’d need to have the transplant within hours of that phone call.

Still, she almost didn’t answer the phone.

“I thought it was probably a car warranty company. I wasn’t expecting the call to come so fast.”

It was a perfect donor match. She needed to be at Vanderbilt to be prepared for surgery in 3 hours.

The urgency and enormity of the situation barely gave her time to let the news sink in. Two friends took her to the hospital. On way, they stopped at a gas station to commemorate the good news with lottery tickets. But Kear felt as if she’d already won the lottery.  

Kear attributes the success of the surgery to her caring clinicians and their team-based approach, including Drs. Shaver, Matthew Bacchetta, Eric Lambright, Ivan Robbins, Robert Miller, and countless others.

“The way they walk you through this is so comforting,” Kear said. “All the reassurance from the doctors,  nurses, tech people, people who clean your room, change the sheets – they could not have been more supportive. They took the fear away. Everyone was fantastic.”

Dreams of sea and sand motivate her recovery

There were a few setbacks as they adjusted medications that uniquely worked best for her, managed potential organ rejection and made sure all organ systems work well.

That’s not unusual for transplant recipients, Kear and Shaver said. In fact, Shaver lists beings flexible and adaptive as other important traits for those who undergo organ transplants.

Kear was transferred to the Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital and also received excellent care there.  She returned to the hospital with a blood clot, which resolved quickly, and had some problems in kidney function. In all, she was in the hospital for 8 weeks.

“I’m competitive so I wanted to be out of the hospital the fastest, but that didn’t happen, “ Kear said.

Kear looks forward to a day when she can travel again. The clear turquoise waters and white sands of the Caribbean’s Turks and Caicos are motivating her to continue her recovery with the same energy and passion she brings to her global travels. 

You can save lives like Kear's donor

It turns out that Kear is not the first person in her family to have an organ transplant.

Ten years before her own transplant, Kear’s cousin-in-law had a liver transplant because of a rare condition, Wilson’s disease.

Kear was so moved by her relative’s experience, she decided to become an organ donor.

“And now I’m a transplant recipient. You just thank God every day for these donors.”

Consider saving lives by becoming an organ donor. Learn more at Tennessee Donor Services.

Vanderbilt Lung Institute

A Multidisciplinary Team

Kear's treatment team included skilled specialists, each with experience and expertise in their own areas of medicine or surgery. She is grateful to all of them, from doctors and surgeons, nurses and therapists, nutrition and environmental services and more. Below you'll find the physicians involved in her care. 

Ciara M. Shaver

Ciara M. ShaverMD, PhD

    Allergy / Pulmonary and Critical Care, Critical Care Medicine, General Pulmonary Medicine, Internal Medicine, Lung Transplant, Pulmonary, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine
Matthew Bacchetta

Matthew BacchettaMD, MBA, MA

    Cardiac Surgery, Lung Transplant, Lung Transplantation, Lung/Thoracic Cancer, Pulmonary Endarterectomy for Chronic Thromboembolic Pulmonary Hypertension, Surgery for Diseases of the Lung, Surgery for Diseases of the Rib Cage and Diaphragm
Eric S. Lambright

Eric S. LambrightMD

    Lung Conditions, Lung Transplant, Lung Transplantation, Lung/Thoracic Cancer, Surgery for Diseases of the Lung, Surgery for Diseases of the Rib Cage and Diaphragm, Surgery for Lung Cancer and Esophageal Cancer
Ivan M. Robbins

Ivan M. RobbinsMD

    Allergy / Pulmonary and Critical Care, Critical Care Medicine, Lung Transplant, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine
Robert F. Miller

Robert F. MillerMD

    Allergy / Pulmonary and Critical Care, Cancer, General Pulmonary Medicine, Lung Cancer, Thymic Cancer and Mesothelioma, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine
Joao A. De Andrade

Joao A. De AndradeMD

    Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine

Programs Involved in Kear's Care

Patients who have complex medical conditions like Kear's benefit from a comprehensive approach by a team of experts who are skilled and focused in their areas of care. Here are some of the programs that were involved in Kear's care.