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St. Louis doctors catch Southwest flight with transplanted lungs to help save man's life

"I said, 'I'm a doctor, this is a pair of human lungs,'" Dr. Caldwell recalled. "'You guys have a flight leaving at 6:20 a.m. and I need to be on it.'"

ST. LOUIS — In the last two years, Mitchell Reynolds has spent more time in the hospital than the doctors and nurses. But there's finally light at the end of the otoscope.

"I feel better right now than I have in the past five, six years," he said.

The 67-year-old Reynolds is recovering from a lung transplant. And his medical team is recovering from an amazing race against time.

It all started with a lifesaving gift of donated lungs in Chicago.

"So our team of surgeons flew to Chicago using a small jet to get there," said Dr. Ramsey Hachem, a Washington University pulmonologist and surgical director of the Lung Transplant Program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

They landed just after midnight at a private airport.

"It was kind of just starting to snow," Washington University surgical resident Dr. Katharine Caldwell said, "but we thought we would have enough time to do the procurement and get back out of Chicago."

In these situations, the clock is ticking. They need to minimize the time that the lungs are outside the body.

"That entire time period, we try to keep under 7 hours. And the shorter the better," Dr. Hachem said.

Beyond that risks injury to the lungs.

But when they got back to the plane, freezing fog made taking off impossible. Off in the distance, though, was Chicago's Midway Airport.

"We immediately started looking at our phones and checking for flights," said Beth Albertine, the Lung Transplant Coordinator back in St. Louis.

The only option was a direct Southwest flight leaving in less than an hour, at 6:20 a.m.

With the lungs in a cooler and riding in an ambulance, Dr. Caldwell and the team made short work of Chicago's Cicero Avenue, then jumped out and ran straight to the Southwest ticket counter.

"I said, 'I'm a doctor, this is a pair of human lungs,'" Dr. Caldwell recalled. "'You guys have a flight leaving at 6:20 a.m. and I need to be on it.'"

The line at TSA wasn't long but the explanation was.

"They called over their supervisor to come look at it and look at all of our paperwork," Dr. Caldwell said, "and she explained to me that she worked there a long time but she had never seen anything like this."

Then after sprinting the length of the terminal, they arrived at the gate just as the doors were shutting. There was no way that cooler was going into an overhead bin, so the pilot and the flight attendants gave the doctors a companion pass of sorts.

"They helped us get the cooler on board and quite literally strapped it into a seat," a grateful Dr. Caldwell said.

"I was very nervous, I'm not going to lie," Albertine said. "It was very stressful but at the same time, I just kept thinking we have to do this transplant. We can't let this precious gift go to waste."

And it didn't.

Mitchell Reynolds now has new lungs and a story to tell. A story he didn't hear until days after his surgery.

"I was absolutely amazed," Reynolds said. "I thought, 'My gosh, this sounds like a good plot for a cliffhanger movie.'"

He says he owes everything to everybody on the Barnes transplant team. And of course, the donor.

"None of this would be possible without organ donation," Dr. Hachem said.

A journey that was not just about an operation, but cooperation: from Southwest Airlines to TSA to the BJC transplant team.

"I took this job because I want to fight for people," Dr. Caldwell said. "I want to fight for each individual person who needs a second chance."

And she's now a co-author of a thriller and a patient's new chapter in life.

"And I'll be deeply forever grateful for what has occurred," Reynolds said.

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