UW Health doctors save La Crosse man with rare organ transplant

La Crosse man saved after lung and heart transplant, highlights importance of organ donation

MADISON, Wis. (WKBT) – A La Crosse man nearly lost his life after a problem he thought was just his asthma. In order to save his life, doctors at UW Health performed only the 15th organ transplant of this kind since 2008.

Daniel Milburn was a healthy young adult with a common condition.

“When I was an infant, I was diagnosed with asthma,” Milburn said.

The week of Easter this year, Milburn had trouble breathing. Not uncommon for his life.

“It just felt like it was something different,” he said.

Doctors found something else they couldn’t ignore.

“Daniel was critically ill,” Dr. Erin Lowery, medical director of UW Health’s lung transplant program.

A flight to Madison in a helicopter began a race against valuable time.

“He had developed acute sudden respiratory failure,” Lowery said.

Milburn’s mom had to fly to Madison from California.

“Early morning, received a phone call from doctors in La Crosse asking if I knew the condition of my son,” Ronda Miller said. “Baffled me.”

Miller’s presence was confirmation Milburn’s condition was serious.

“By me seeing my mom in Madison, knowing that she was working in California, I knew something was wrong,” Milburn said.

Doctors hooked Milburn to a ventilator because he could not breathe on his own. Later he was on the hospital’s highest level of life support.

“What happened to him? This is a 24-year-old previously healthy individual,” Lowery said.

The race to discover what was wrong began. Dr. Erin Lowery and her team found it, but the solution would take everything her lung transplant team had at their disposal.

“It’s called chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension,” Lowery said. “It’s hard for the heart to pump blood through the lungs because of all the clots.”

Surgeons needed to remove Milburn’s lungs. They added him to a waitlist that can take months to receive a donor.

“We have one of the shortest wait list times in the country here in Wisconsin,” Lowery said.

One week is the average wait time. However, the vessels near Milburn’s heart were damaged to the point he needed a new heart too.

“That just raises the complexity of his listing,” she said.

Even with the transplant, Milburn had a 50/50 shot at another chance at life.

“From being on the phone with my son one to actually hearing that he may not live, that in itself was just inconceivable,” Miller said. “I couldn’t grasp my head around the fact that my son may not live.”

Milburn’s doctors filled him in on their plan to try and save his life.

“There was too many thoughts,” Milburn said. “Too many to process.”

Then came the news Miller prayed for.

“This was on the Friday, which was Good Friday. The very next day he received a donor,” Miller said. “The following day which was Easter, he received the transplant.”

The process from diagnosis to where Milburn is today was far from simple.

“That took a Herculean effort,” Lowery said.

Obviously, Daniel’s condition improved after his surgery. A mother and son are still walking side by side.

“To see him now just be able to breathe,” Miller said.

Milburn understands what it took for him to wake up.

“It’s more than a gift,” he said. “It’s a blessing because in order for me to live somebody has to pass.”

A few simple minutes someone took, to add their name to a list saved a mother’s son. That orange dot on your driver’s license could do the same for someone else, praying for their miracle.

“There is no words that I could even make up that would explain how grateful we are,” Miller said. “One day it could be you or one of your family members.”

Doctors say Milburn exceeded their expectations. They said after his bilateral organ transplant, he was out of the hospital within a month.

To learn more about organ donation in Wisconsin click here. For Minnesota click here.