'Traveling Grandma' able to visit grandchildren on both coasts, after double lung transplant

Ann McLaughlin’s complex surgery also required repair of the left atrium of her heart

When Ann McLaughlin met her first grandchild, she was so frail and short of breath from advanced emphysema that she could barely hold 7-pound Oliver, much less change his diaper.

By the time her second grandchild arrived, McLaughlin had undergone a double lung transplant at UCLA Health that resuscitated her quality of life.

She not only could hold her newest grandchild, she traveled alone from California to New York, without a wheelchair or oxygen, to do so, and then spent a month helping her oldest daughter with the new baby.

“I was me again,” McLaughlin said. “I did it all. I was doing laundry. I was cleaning. My daughter was able to nap while I took care of the baby and Oliver. I was like at the top of my game.”

In 2016, McLaughlin became the 1,001st person to receive a lung transplant at UCLA Health. The lungs, donated from a deceased 18-year-old man, came just as she feared she was nearing her likely life expectancy without a transplant.

These days, McLaughlin, 63, is nicknamed the Traveling Grandma because of her frequent visits to the East Coast and the Bay Area, where her third grandchild lives.

“My grandchildren are my whole reason for being,” she said. “UCLA really changed my outlook on life. Not many people get second chances like that.”

UCLA Health now has surpassed 1,500 lung transplants.

Quit or die

McLaughlin, a retired medical practice administrator and mother of four, grew up in Brentwood. One of her neighbors was the late Dr. Paul Terasaki, the UCLA professor who invented a tissue compatibility test that became the world standard for matching donors and recipients.

By the time she finished high school, she had started smoking. At her peak, she smoked two packs of menthol cigarettes a day.

But she never smoked at the radiology practice where she worked.

“Here I am working in medicine, we’re diagnosing endless cancer patients, and it made me feel a little shameful about myself,” McLaughlin said. “I really feared getting lung cancer.”

In 2010, McLaughlin went to an emergency room feeling extremely sick. She was diagnosed with emphysema, a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, that makes breathing difficult. The doctor told her she was going to die if she didn’t quit smoking.

“I left that ER and I never smoked again,” she said. “The symptoms were really significant. Think of what happens when you can’t breathe. It brought on a lot of anxiety and horrible panic attacks.”

She began to see a local pulmonologist who treated her with inhalers and steroids. Finally, in 2014, he advised her to go to UCLA Health because she needed a lung transplant.

By that point, McLaughlin, at 5-foot-7, barely weighed 100 pounds because breathing while eating was so exhausting.

“It takes a lot of oxygen to eat,” she said. “My body was definitely shutting down, it was failing.”

Patients with damaged lungs can expend so many calories breathing that even when they do eat, they lose weight. Others become so exhausted from the tasks of daily living that they need to nap after taking a shower.

McLaughlin, who now lives in Van Nuys, said it took about a year to undergo the necessary medical clearance to qualify for a transplant. She got on the list, feeling very fortunate to have been chosen, but also scared.

“I’ve never had surgery – I’ve had a root canal,” she said. “This is one of the biggest surgeries you can ever have.”

Complex surgery

On a September afternoon, McLaughlin got a call from UCLA Health. Her year-long wait was over. During that time, she’d become much sicker, going on oxygen full-time and developing pneumonia multiple times.

She was shocked at first, she recalled, but eventually calm.

“I felt safe with UCLA,” she said. “It was a pure surrender. They had my best interest in mind. They weren’t just looking for lungs, they were looking for the best lungs for my lifestyle.”

Her youngest daughter accompanied her to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where a team was waiting for her in the lobby.

“They’re so hospitable from start to finish. You don’t have to ask one question,” McLaughlin said. “It’s so five-star, you have no idea.”

Most lung transplant surgeries last six to 10 hours. McLaughlin’s had an additional layer of complexity because she had an irregular heart rhythm that needed to be repaired in her left atrium at the same time. During surgery, she was placed on a heart-lung bypass machine that pumps and oxygenates the blood outside a patient’s body.

A lung transplant is one of the most complex and risky surgical procedures there is, especially for someone who is very ill. But McLaughlin’s was a huge success.

"Before you get your lungs, everything is so conditional. After, you can finally do everything for yourself. Nothing has to be tabled."

ann mclaughlin, a 2016 lung transplant recipient at Ucla health

She woke up from surgery realizing she could breathe again without oxygen.

“It’s amazing. It’s beautiful. It’s like wow. I really felt alive,” she said.

During her 15-day hospital stay, she felt another new sensation.

“I remember being very hungry, which was a good sign because I never was hungry,” she said. “I gained 13 pounds during my hospital stay. It’s because I’m driving the cafeteria crazy because I kept ordering food.”

Comprehensive care

McLaughlin said the transplant gave her a life of independence and possibility again. She walks her dog every day. She works at Nordstrom during the holiday season, where she can hit 15,000 steps in a shift.

“Before you get your lungs, everything is so conditional,” she said. “After, you can finally do everything for yourself. Nothing has to be tabled.”

McLaughlin went through a health scare in the summer of 2020 but her UCLA Health team was there to see her through it.

She contracted COVID-19 before vaccines were available. McLaughlin was particularly high risk because the anti-rejection medication she takes for her lungs suppresses her immune system.

McLaughlin contacted her UCLA Health pulmonologist right away for monitoring.

“I’ve never been this sick in all my sicknesses,” she said. “All I could do was sleep.”

After about a week, McLaughlin was hospitalized at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. She’d developed mild pneumonia that resulted in minor scarring of her lungs. She didn’t need oxygen, but received convalescent plasma, an infusion of antibodies from donors who have recovered from COVID-19.

McLaughlin has since received four COVID-19 vaccine doses as well as an infusion of Evushield, a treatment used to prevent illness in immunocompromised people.

She is regularly checked by a multidisciplinary team to ensure her overall health and the hope is that her new lungs will last for the rest of her life.

“I feel very blessed and I can take care of myself,” McLaughlin said. “There’s so many positives in my life right now. The whole UCLA system gave me back my life and gave my family back their mother.”

Learn more about the UCLA Health Lung Transplant program.

Courtney Perkes is the author of this article.