The first recipient of the Nebraska Medical Center's revived lung-transplant program amazed doctors with a premonition — actually, a prediction. • On a Thursday late last month, Phil Sauvageau, 58, seriously ill with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, was placed on the list for the first available set of lungs. He told physicians: "You've got to make an appointment for Saturday." • They "kind of laughed it off," he said, doubting that it would happen within three days but hoping it would within three months. • Sauvageau insisted that the voice of Jesus had told him Saturday was the day: "I swear He spoke to me."
Sure enough, the lungs arrived that Saturday evening. A medical team sprung into action, and surgery began at 4:43 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 24.
The six-hour procedure was led by Dr. Aleem Siddique, 38, the hospital's surgical director of lung transplantation.
In an interview Sunday, three weeks after the successful surgery, Siddique smiled in recalling Phil's statement that Jesus had told him the date.
"Phil has been quite strong in his faith," said Siddique, a Muslim. "He came to us a couple of times with things he felt would come true — which did come true. What can I say?"
Dr. Heather Strah, medical director of lung transplantation, also noted the patient's uncanny predictions. "I met Phil in October," she said, "and he told me he was going to be our first lung-transplant recipient. I thought he was joking, pulling my chain. I saw him again in December, and he said, 'No, really, I'm going to be the first one.'
"We listed him on a Thursday, and as I was leaving, he said, 'OK, I'll see you on Saturday.' ''
The Nebraska Medical Center is one of the few U.S. institutions to offer all solid-organ transplants under one roof and since 1970 has performed thousands of heart, liver, kidney, pancreas and intestinal transplants. It performed lung transplants starting in 1995 but ended the program in 1998 after the death of one surgeon and the departure of another.
The move to revive the program gained momentum about four years ago after the arrival of Dr. Michael Moulton, and he recruited Siddique 2 1/2 years ago. Strah was recruited to Omaha a little over a year ago, and it was announced in November that the lung-transplant program was being renewed.
On Jan. 23, Moulton retrieved the lungs for Sauvageau and assisted in the surgery. Officials declined to give the donor's age or gender or circumstances of the donor's death, but said that it happened outside Nebraska and that the lungs were very strong and healthy.
"The donor's family has offered not just Phil but other organ recipients an amazing gift," Strah said. "It is very generous of families to think of the needs of others in times of great sorrow personally."
Sauvageau, a married father of four and grandpa of eight, said he thinks of the late donor and the donor's family all the time and eventually would like to thank them in person. He is grateful, he said, to the family and to God.
"I'm thankful beyond anything I've ever felt before," he said from his bed Sunday at the medical center's Clarkson Tower. "The whole time has been a faith journey, and I kept getting closer and closer to Jesus."
An Omahan since his father moved the family here for his executive job at the old Brandeis department store in 1968, Phil Sauvageau graduated from Creighton Prep. He later managed the Julio's restaurant downtown, and wife Emily waited tables.
In his early 30s he enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to learn computers. He joined younger brother Jeff Sauvageau in MSI Systems Integrators, and the company grew beyond their imagination.
In 2000, at 43, Phil bought the house where they had grown up, near 58th Street and Underwood Avenue. Life was good.
He had quit drinking in his early 30s, he said, and had ceased smoking, too. But a health exam for life insurance in 2000 detected hepatitis C, though he had no symptoms. He was treated and cured, but years later was found to have "latent TB," or tuberculosis.
He was treated with the drug interferon alpha, he said, and became one of the few for whom a side effect led to pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring of the lungs. (Strah said it's not known for certain if the "rare but well-described side effect" caused his pulmonary fibrosis, but it is probable.)
Sauvageau visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and the University of Iowa's medical center in Iowa City.
Because of the apparently drug-induced pulmonary fibrosis, he said, his health began deteriorating in 2012.
He eventually needed portable oxygen, and it became more and more difficult to move about. He was pleased to learn that the med center in Omaha was preparing to renew its lung-transplant program.
His and Emily's children are Colette Siner, Janelle Risdon, and Michelle and Nick Sauvageau. Michelle is engaged to be married April 16, and because her father thought he might not be around for her wedding, she posed with him in church for wedding-type photos.
On the evening of Jan. 23, the family had picked up pizza at La Casa, and Phil got a call at home at 6:15 p.m. Nurse coordinator Bobbi Heffelfinger urged him to get to the hospital.
Before long, he said, his room there was filled with what seemed like dozens of medical people, happily anticipating a positive outcome.
Two Catholic priests visited, and he received the sacrament of the sick, previously called the last rites. He felt no stress, he said, and was at peace with whatever outcome.
Since the double-lung transplant, he has gradually walked hospital hallways more each day, achieving his goal of one mile on Sunday. He was happy to get home Monday night.
Dr. Strah said the prognosis is good and Sauvageau will receive long-term follow-up care. That includes testing and pulmonary rehabilitation every day for the next several months, and then checkups every few months for the rest of his life.
Patients who survive their first year after a transplant are typically expected to live seven or eight years. But Strah said she has seen patients who received transplants 10 or 20 years ago and still are in relatively good health.
"Phil is a determined guy," said brother Jeff. "He's been a really amazing leader in the business and the family. After the transplant, it was great to see him laughing and joking again."
Jeff and Phil sold their company to a Texas competitor, and Phil retired a couple of years ago. The musical brothers plan to carry out a long-delayed plan to record a CD together in a studio.
Guitar-playing Phil, who wrote and sang songs for his two older daughters' weddings, now plans to do so for Michelle, whom he will walk down the aisle of St. Cecilia Cathedral in two months.
His accurate prediction that lungs would arrive for him Jan. 23 has been the talk of the transplant program. It may have been just an amazing coincidence, but many physicians don't discount the value of faith.
"It probably does help people," said Siddique, who was born in England. "There are reasons to think faith may give people a little more ability to deal with ups and downs, and it can help people get through tough times."
Phil Sauvageau has endured tough times. But now he can breathe easier.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, email@example.com