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A Blackout Miracle: A Life-Saving Lung Transplant

Aired August 28, 2003 - 20:53   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: When New York City blacked out two weeks ago a teenage boy's life was running out. The story of how he lived is nothing short of a miracle.

ZAHN (voice-over): When the lights went out on New York City, hope dimmed for Paul Giella, an 18-year-old waiting for a lung transplant. His heart was beginning to give out from the strain of his damaged lungs.

Eight hours after New York City went dark, Paul's doctor at Columbia Presbyterian found lungs for Paul, but they couldn't find Paul. Phone lines down, computers down. There was no way to locate the 18-year-old.

And the clock was ticking. The donor lungs deteriorate quickly. The hospital used old fashion detective team work.

After scanning the 32 Giellas in the phone book, police were dispatched to a familiar address. At 4:15 a.m. they found him.

Next, a chopper ride over a dark and quiet New York City and a high-speed ambulance trip delivered Paul to the hospital. High- powered generators and a full operating room were ready to breathe life back into this young man's life.


ZAHN: Paul's parents, Paul and Kim Giella, join me, along with Theresa Daly. She is the lung transplant coordinator for New York's Presbyterian Hospital. It is so great to see you all.

What a wonderful story. First of all, how is Paul doing?

PAUL GIELLA, PAUL'S FATHER: Paul is doing well.

ZAHN: Take us back to that night, actually the middle of the night when people are banging at your door at 4:00 in the morning. What did you think was going on?

P. GIELLA: Well, we were all fast asleep. I was -- my alarm had just started to go off because I get up between 4:00 and 4:30 to get ready for work. Kimberly, you heard the knock on the door.

KIM GIELLA, PAUL'S MOTHER: I was sleeping on the couch and the...

ZAHN: Uncomfortably I might add. It was a very hot night that night.

K. GIELLA: I heard the knock on the door. And I went to the door and there was a policeman standing there. And he said, "Does Paul Giella live here?" And I looked at him, and he said, "Theresa Daly from Columbia transplant team is trying to get hold of you. They think they have lungs for him."

I was like, oh my god, this is the call. It was a very emotional moment. And he gave Theresa's phone number so I could contact her.

And immediately I did have my cell phone working. My other phone was down, the line. And I was able to get hold of Theresa. And she was like, "Oh thank god," because they had been trying to reach us for hours.

ZAHN: Theresa, help people understand what a gift this was. First of all, once you get a set of lungs, they're not good for a long period of time, are they?

THERESA DALY, LUNG TRANSPLANT COORDINATOR: No. Lungs are one of the hardest organs to come across in the United States. In general, there's about 5,000 or 6,000 in the United States who are willing to donate organs in the course of a year. And it hasn't changed over the last five or six years.

ZAHN: So put this into context. So that night you find out that there are donor organs for Paul, which are his only chance, basically, of living.

DALY: Basically. And we were very familiar with Paul's case. He's got a very rare disease and he was going downhill very rapidly, so we knew there weren't going to be very many opportunities for him. So when Dr. Sonnett (ph) called me and said, "Look, it looks like we have something really good for him, we need to find him," so we just went to work and that was it.

ZAHN: But all of this happening in the middle of the blackout. Was there a period of time where you feared that you just weren't going to be able to make the connection, you weren't going to be able to find Paul and he might not make it?

DALY: We were concerned because you never know if this is going to be the only opportunity or not. But you just got to have faith. Because we tell our patients, we're going to find them no matter where they are. And we do.

And we had a lot of help. You know the police were wonderful that night as well.

ZAHN: Then you wound up at the hospital where you had a very long wait. Describe to us going into the surgery though what Paul's state of mind was.

K. GIELLA: He was pretty...

P. GIELLA: He was actually very strong. Very strong, and he didn't really show that much fear. I mean, he's really handled this whole situation...

ZAHN: But he didn't even react to the drama of what was going on?

P. GIELLA: He tried to maintain a very mild temperament. And I think he really knew what he was up against once they had him prepped and in the OR room.

ZAHN: And meanwhile, the OR room was running on generators.

P. GIELLA: Yes, he was in the or room for, what, two hours?

K. GIELLA: Two hours without us. I think he had to wait and see if the donor lungs were acceptable, if they were healthy enough to transplant. So for two hours he was there by himself with actually one of the other coordinators from the transplant team, with Kim holding his hand.

And when the call came to say it's a go, she looked at him and she said, "Are you all right?" He said, "I'm ready, let's go."

ZAHN: But meanwhile, mom and dad are worried to death in the waiting room, not knowing if the generator was going stay operational. What were you thinking?

P. GIELLA: Well, at that time, I think the power had come back up and everything, air conditioning was starting to come back on line. And temperatures were getting stable, a little bit more better for the operation and everything else. So I think everything just happened through the will of god. I mean, it was...

ZAHN: You have to feel so blessed.

K. GIELLA: As scared as we were, we knew though that these were his lungs. God took too many ways to get him there and make sure that in the blackout and everything else that my son was there waiting for those lungs. And it's a miracle. And he's doing wonderful.

And I have my son back. And thanks to the donor family, who was generous enough to give their child's organs, which they need -- there's a great need for donor organs that are not out there now. So it's very good program.

ZAHN: Wow. Paul and Kim, thank you for sharing your story with us. And Theresa, thank you very much for explaining how this all came about.


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