Dr. Jasleen Kukreja is a lung surgeon, director of UCSF's Lung Transplant Program and the Doris F. and Donald E. Fisher Distinguished Professor in Pulmonary Therapies and Science. In 2014, the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients (SRTR) identified UCSF as the only program in the nation with higher than expected patient and graft survival rates.
What drew you to thoracic surgery?
When I was training as a general surgeon, I operated on everything but the chest. I was curious to find out what was on the other side of the diaphragm. The chest seemed like such a fascinating — almost spiritual — cavity.
Plus I knew not a lot of women went into cardiothoracic surgery, which made the career a challenging choice and, therefore, even more appealing.
Why did you choose UCSF?
I consider UCSF to be the Harvard of the West Coast. I came to UCSF in 2004 from Boston, where I had been training at Brigham Women and Children’s Hospital. UCSF is the ideal institution. It has excellent basic science research, clinical research and patient care expertise that have achieved national recognition.
What keeps you here?
I love the collaborative environment. Everyone is supportive of each other and that makes a big difference. There is a huge team effort behind every patient’s success story.
On a regular day, we don’t even think of our work as particularly remarkable and that’s what’s remarkable about the program.
How did Russell Colunga's case come to your attention?
Russell came to see us in the transplant clinic. He had been a fitness instructor and a very active person. But he was also very sick. His health was deteriorating rapidly, so he moved through the evaluation process quickly.
Did Russell’s activity level make him a good candidate for transplant?
Obviously there are a lot of medical issues to consider when it comes to lung transplant but, as far as non-medical issues go, activity level is very important because it’s an indicator of overall stamina. Patients who are bedridden are generally not considered good transplant candidates. Experience has taught us that they are physically not strong enough.
Russell was very ill, but he did his best to stay fit. He was still spinning away on his stationary bike with an oxygen tank by his side. Because he was fit going into surgery, his recovery was remarkably quick.
Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to be a fitness instructor to get a lung transplant. But if you can walk a couple of times every day, even for 10 minutes, it’s a big advantage.
Who decides who gets donated lungs?
Donated organs are a very precious resource. Each donor and recipient is very carefully considered and selected by the transplant team. We need to balance the needs of the recipient with the wishes of the donor’s family during what is usually a very painful time. The family wants the gift to be put to the best possible use. We knew that Russell had many more years of life ahead of him. Activity kept Russell very young! Actually, he is in better shape than I am. He is awesome.
What do you like most about your job?
My job gives me an enormous amount of pleasure and satisfaction. I am exhilarated by what the human body is capable of overcoming. Not many people can say that about their jobs.
I also enjoy working with a team of people who are unbelievably brilliant and dedicated, while, at the same time, funny and easygoing. I am truly grateful for the experience.
Interviewed July 2014 by Catherine Guthrie.