UCLA medical team a 'Godsend' for lung-transplant patient
Photo: Angela Tofilau is all smiles with husband Jeff Tofilau, left, and son Jeremiah Tofilau at Ronald Regan UCLA Medical Center. (Photo by Joshua Sudock/UCLA Health)
Angela Tofilau’s faith was being tested. But after a 14-year battle for survival, her faith was sustained when Tofilau, a wife and mother of four from La Verne, received a double-lung transplant at UCLA.
Tofilau’s medical journey began in 2008, when, after experiencing difficulty breathing, she was diagnosed with asthma.
However, the medications she was prescribed weren’t helping, and her condition was, in fact, deteriorating. “I was getting worse, and then I kept getting pneumonia,” she said. “The repeated pneumonias weakened my immune system so I was vulnerable to other illnesses.”
She eventually developed a condition known as mycobacterium avium complex — MAC — a bacterial infection that causes symptoms similar to tuberculosis.
“I don’t know how I caught that, but it was a really hard treatment to go through,” Tofilau said.
Other illnesses followed. While being treated for MAC, she contracted pseudomonas, another bacterial infection of the lungs that eventually became antibiotic-resistant, and then bronchiectasis, a condition similar to cystic fibrosis resulting in thickened mucus and damaged airways.
A decline of health
Tofilau’s illness was taking its toll not just on her, but on her whole family. “My sickness affected all of us,” she said.
Her husband, Jeff, took extra jobs to cover the medical expenses. “He is so amazing. He carried so much of the weight on his shoulders, and his heart became very heavy. It hurt him so much to see me that way,” Tofilau said. Her children suffered emotionally and academically.
After 10 years of struggling with her health, a pulmonologist who was managing her care suggested she consider a lung transplant.
Though a woman of deep faith, Tofilau admitted it was difficult to stay strong. “A lot of people were praying hard for me, and we begin to ask God why he wasn’t answering our prayers,” she said. “But we kept on praying, and we kept on trying.”
A change of scenery
In July 2019, Tofilau learned that UCLA Health had agreed to list her as a lung-transplant patient. While she was undergoing tests, UCLA infectious-diseases specialist Omer Beaird, MD, and UCLA pulmonologist Ariss DerHovanessian, MD determined that Tofilau had a genetic predisposition to fungal infections, making her susceptible to pneumonia, the disease that led to the cascade of medical crises that ultimately brought her to UCLA.
“I cry when I think about this — Dr. Beaird and Dr. DerHovanessian kept me alive,” Tofilau said.
But the road ahead was still long. Though she was put on antifungal and antibiotic medications, they, too, began to lose their effectiveness. Then, in March 2020, Tofilau was admitted to an emergency room after experiencing excruciating pain in her lungs — she was bleeding internally.
“I was in and out of the hospital from then until the time of my transplant,” Tofilau said. “I told Dr. Beaird that I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I was too far down on the list. He kept encouraging me, and he told me he knew that I would get a match.”
Three years after she was listed, Tofilau got that match. On April 5, 2022, she was brought to an operating room at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where Abbas Ardehali, MD, director of the UCLA Heart-Lung Transplant Programs, performed the operation that has dramatically changed her life.
“It was a complex surgery — one that many other institutions would have passed on doing,” Dr. Ardehali said. “She had pleurodesis, which is a condition that adheres the lung to the chest wall. It made the removal of her lungs quite challenging, but it’s also what made her case so special.”
A new life
Tofilau noticed the difference almost immediately upon opening her eyes after her surgery.
“My life is totally different,” she said. “Before the surgery, I couldn’t move. My body ached all the time, my skin was scaly and my face was sunk in because I lost a lot of weight. I couldn’t exercise at all.”
Three months post-surgery, Tofilau feels she has a new lease on life, and her entire family has benefitted because of it.
“Now my husband and I work out together. He walks with me every day, he’s on a new diet with me, and he’s getting healthier, too,” she said.
Tofilau said she is most proud to see the changes in her children, and she is overjoyed to be able to spend more time with them again.
“For two years, I couldn’t sit with my 11-year-old and help him with his homework, so he suffered academically. Now he’s thriving in school,” she said. “My daughter is a cheerleader and my son plays football in high school, so now I get to watch them both.”
Tofilau has nothing but praise for the UCLA doctors and nurses who cared for her. “They are a Godsend,” she said.
To learn more about UCLA Health's Lung Transplant program, visit the UCLA Lung Transplant page.