Spencer Kolman was a busy, seemingly healthy teen a year ago. He was involved in drama, band, hockey and Boy Scouts. Last fall, however, the 15-year-old nearly died.
When Spencer was just a toddler, doctors discovered he suffered from Rhabdomyosarcoma. Rhabdomyosarcoma is cancer of the connective tissue specifically found in the muscles attached to the bone that help the body move. In order to get Spencer well, he had to undergo an array of treatments.
“Chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, more chemotherapy,” recalled Spencer’s dad, Ken Kolman. The good news was, by the time he was two-and-a-half, his cancer was in remission. The bad news was, though they didn’t know it then, the chemotherapy had injured his lungs and heart.
Although his Rhabdomyosarcoma was under control, Spencer developed breathing problems over time. One day, while playing hockey, he collapsed. “I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know if I was sick with [the] flu or a virus or something,” Spencer recalled. It was much worse than that. Spencer needed a new heart and new lungs.
While seeking help at other hospitals, doctors said it would be too risky to operate on his lungs. This brought Spencer and his family to St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
“Frankly, when I saw him, he was in extreme distress,” said Pirooz Eghtesady, MD, director of the St. Louis Children’s and Washington University Heart Center and chief of cardiothoracic surgery. “When we met with my colleagues I felt a strong sense of urgency because I did not think he had much time left.”
Luckily for Spencer, two-and-a-half weeks after being admitted to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, the healthy organs he desperately needed became available. During Spencer’s surgery, Dr. Eghtesady and his team worked hard to make this rare heart/ lung transplant successful.
“It’s pretty surreal,” explained Dr. Eghtesady. “At one point there is nothing in the chest cavity and it’s hard to fathom that someone is being sustained alive with a heart-lung machine, which is what we have to do.”
During surgery, the doctors removed the great vessels of the heart, as well as the roots of both lungs. The lungs and heart were then removed, and the new organs were implanted. The surgeons also worked to fix Spencer’s airway and the circulation to his heart.
“Just seeing him the next day, the first day and how well he was doing. He was already looking like he was ready to have the breathing tube removed. I was delighted. I thought we’d hit a homerun with him,” said Dr. Eghtesady.
Two months later, Spencer Kolman returned home.
“I feel a lot better than I did before,” Spencer said. In fact, when he gets back to school he’s thinking about rejoining the band.
“It’s a great feeling to see him be so happy and excited,” said Dr. Eghtesady with a smile. The longer Spencer goes without rejection issues, the better the prognosis. Spencer is a strong, young man with a new heart, new lungs and a new beginning.
For more information about the St. Louis Children’s and Washington University Heart Center, call Children’s Direct at 800.678.HELP (4357).