East Bay woman tops medal stand at World Transplant Games
By Lou Fancher
Something beyond science describes Patti Zuppan-Hood’s 52 years of life.
Sure, there’s meconium illeus, the thick, sticky intestines discovered at her birth that indicated the Walnut Creek resident had cystic fibrosis.
The multisystem condition significantly impacts the respiratory system, causing lung infections, inflammation, progressive damage and eventual respiratory failure. CF-related diabetes, bone and liver disease, and fertility problems surface. With treatment, median survival age is 37.4 years: most people with CF today can expect to live to at least 50, according to experts.
With a biography that reads like superhero science fiction, Zuppan-Hood’s pursuit of not just survival, but health, fitness and living life at its fullest placed her in the neighborhood pool, on high school race tracks, and most recently on the winner’s podium at the World Transplant Games Federation’s 2017 Summer Games in Malaga, Spain.
There, Zuppan-Hood won five gold medals and set two world records in freestyle, butterfly and individual medley swim events in the 50-59 age group.
Given lungs she calls “the gift of living,” from a 24-year-old male donor in July 2014, Zuppan-Hood had set a post-transplant goal to enter the 2017 Games.
She was in the pool at Heather Farm at 5:30 a.m. four days a week, lifted weights, refined her stroke with private instruction from Steve Stahl, one of the coaches in the Walnut Creek masters program at Heather Farm Park.
“Determined, physical and mental strength, stubbornness. That’s what’s gotten her through the disease,” says Steve Stahl, one of her coaches in the Walnut Creek masters program at Heather Farm Park.
Looking at award presentation photos, Zuppan-Hood says, “I never expected the medals. After my swims, I was stunned.”
Medical proceduresReflecting on her earliest years, she says the doctors at Oakland-based Peralta Hospital where she was born immediately plopped her in a basket. Not waiting for ambulance transport, her father drove his newborn daughter to Oakland Children’s Hospital for the first of many medical procedures.
From then to today, there was applied science: sweating nightly in a mist tent, percussion therapy and nebulizer treatments to loosen mucus in her lungs, hospitalizations when she caught common colds, and eventually, insulin shots, IV antibiotic infusions, oxygen tanks, ventilators and more.
Undergraduate degrees in physiology, microbiology and anatomy from UC Berkeley, a master’s degree from San Francisco State in cell and molecular biology and employment as a pharmaceutical research scientist added academic and career angles to the science of being Zuppan-Hood.
“She had very good commitment to health,” says Dr. Steven Hays, pulmonologist and medical director of the Lung Transplant Program at UCSF Medical Center.
One of five physicians on Zuppan-Hood’s transplant team, Hays says her lungs showed considerable deterioration due to years of complex therapies, but her “hutzpah,” high fitness level and friends and family support system were robust.
“She was critically ill, she’d had life-threatening episodes. It was mental toughness and conditioning that got her to the finish line,” he says.
Says Zuppan-Hood, “My parents never bought into the going theories of no exercise. When I was born, life expectancy was age 10; when I was 21, doctors said it was 30. I never looked at that.”
Along with stringent adherence to medical interventions, her childhood growing up on Walnut Avenue was filled with swimming at Scottsdale Swim & Tennis club and Northgate High School, gymnastics, track and field, aerobics and joining her two brothers in sports activities.
“I was in and out of the hospital, but it wasn’t like I was ill or different than anyone else,” she says.
Denial, burying your head like an ostrich, is what she calls it now. But the underlying philosophy is proactive: “No matter what hit me, I figured out a way to make my life work with it.”
In 1998, she retired from 12-hour workdays to allow for increased respiratory therapy. Trips to the grocery store and hikes with beloved Labrador, Tiger Lily, were accompanied by portable oxygen tanks.
Cystic fibrosis under the controlled, “listen to doctors, have a knowledge base, then live your life” approach, allowed Zuppan-Hood and her husband, Ken Hood, in 1992 to have a child, Nicole Hood.
“That was different: it wasn’t conventional CF,” she admits. “We tested my husband to see if he was a carrier, but they can’t test for all permutations, so we lucked out. Having her was everything.”
Hays recalls running into Zuppan-Hood at Yosemite not long before she collapsed and spent two months on the transplant list before receiving her new lungs.
“Her daughter was doing an extreme 26-mile hike. Patti was there with her oxygen, struggling, but there to cheer on her daughter.”
After her husband told her to “Get a grip: you need a transplant,” events moved rapidly. With her husband and daughter as motivation, she went through the rigorous qualifying tests, surgery, CAT scans, daily blood draws, anti-rejection drugs, pain medications — she still takes 30 pills daily — and living post-surgery for two months in San Francisco with a caretaker team.
“My daughter took a quarter off from UCLA to help,” she says.
‘Fit for Life’Zuppan-Hood has applied to speak on behalf of organ donation and fitness as a WTGF “Fit for Life Ambassador.”
She is training for the 2018 Transplant Games of America that will be held in Salt Lake City. Science, medication, pain, fatigue and people who stare at the mask she often wears in public to protect her compromised immune system will continue but not define her life. Something more — survivor spirit — explains everything.