Novel operation performed by Jackson‘s Lung Center in South Florida helps woman diagnosed with emphysema gain her life back

By: Krysten Brenlla

Sherri DiLorenzo, 65, has lived her life with a cigarette in her hand.

“I’ve been smoking for 50 years, and I used to say, ‘It’s not going to affect me,’” DiLorenzo said. “But little by little, it hit me. I got bad very quickly.”

A Long Island native, DiLorenzo loves traveling, gardening, trying new restaurants, and spending time with her daughter, who she calls her best friend.

After a lifetime of smoking, DiLorenzo was diagnosed with emphysema, a condition in which the lungs’ air sacs are damaged and enlarged.

“My lungs grew so large that they were hitting against my stomach and esophagus,” she said. “They grew 30 to 40 percent of their actual size, to the point where I could barely eat because I couldn’t swallow anything.”

As the disease progressed, DiLorenzo went from 120 pounds to 75 pounds. Her daughter, who was her caretaker at the time, had to help her with daily tasks, like cooking, showering, and walking.

“In my life, everything stopped after I got sick,” she said. “I couldn’t even get up to the go to the bathroom by myself – I couldn’t do anything. It was a pretty depressing life.”

To get her spirits up, DiLorenzo’s friend invited her to go camping in central Florida. That’s when she experienced her first breathing exacerbation, or an emphysema flare-up.

“After that experience, I was afraid to even go to sleep because I didn’t know if I would wake up the next day,” she said.

DiLorenzo’s health deteriorated so badly that her pulmonologist thought it was time to consider lung transplantation, and referred her to The Lung Center at Jackson Health System and the Miami Transplant Institute, an affiliation between Jackson and UHealth – University of Miami Health System.

Upon arrival, the MTI team evaluated DiLorenzo’s condition for a lung transplant.

However, during her evaluation, DiLorenzo suffered another breathing exacerbation that landed her in The Lung Center’s intensive care unit (ICU) at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Doctors found that she had a bacterial infection in her lungs, which made her ineligible for transplantation. However, The Lung Center team had another idea to help DiLorenzo.

“Sherri was in an extremely fragile condition when she got to us,” said Tiago N. Machuca, MD, PhD, director of The Lung Center and DiLorenzo’s lead thoracic surgeon. “But our Lung Center offers a comprehensive range of services for all lung-related diseases and conditions. We were able to offer Sherri an alternative to transplantation that ultimately saved her life.”

After additional tests, Dr. Machuca and his team determined that DiLorenzo was eligible for a lung volume reduction surgery, a unique procedure that removes diseased lung tissue robotically to help improve healthy parts of the lung.

“I discussed the option with my daughter, and she said, ‘Ma, you’re not going to make it through breathing like this – you need this surgery,’” DiLorenzo said. “I was scared going into that operating room, but my daughter was my motivation.”

Despite her fears, DiLorenzo had a successful lung volume reduction surgery on March 15, 2023.

“For the longest time, I couldn’t take a deep breath in; I couldn’t even blow out a candle,” DiLorenzo said. “And all of a sudden, after the surgery, I’m able to take a deep breath. When they brought me food, I was able to eat everything – every day after surgery, I felt better.”

After spending nearly a month in The Lung Center’s ICU at Jackson Memorial, DiLorenzo was discharged from the hospital. Since her surgery, she has regained a healthy weight and can now breathe normally. Today, she spends quality time with her daughter and friends at her favorite local spots.

“This surgery saved my life – I’m not afraid to do anything anymore,” DiLorenzo said. “Now, I’m able to walk around the block every day, I can drive, I run my own errands, I go out to restaurants with my friends, I’m even planning a trip to Europe with my daughter.”

For the future, DiLorenzo hopes to live smoke-free and spend more time doing what she loves.

“I can’t thank the staff at Jackson enough,” she said. “They gave me my life back!”

Tiago Machuca, MD

General Surgery, Thoracic Surgery