Former Sheriff’s Officer Survives Second Lung Transplant

Annette Olson, St. Joseph's lung transplant patient. As an officer with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, Annette Olson was trained to think quickly on her feet, especially in violent situations. So when a fight broke out between six inmates in a Phoenix jail and she was the lone officer at the scene, she knew her best line of defense was pepper spray. Unfortunately, the can she grabbed was defective. Instead of deploying a short puff, it streamed its entire contents into the jail and—worst of all—into Olson’s lungs.

Immediately, she experienced shortness of breath, so severe it knocked her unconscious. She had successfully ended the fight at the jail, but her fight to breathe was only just beginning. 

A Slow Decline

Olson was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where she was treated and released within hours. Over the course of the next few years, though, her lung function deteriorated. Despite receiving medical care from a pulmonologist, her conditioned worsened, forcing her to retire early in 2004.

“I couldn’t do the job of an officer anymore,” she says. “I had shortness of breath, like asthma. But nobody could understand what was happening to me because it wasn’t anything they’d seen before. It seemed to progress no matter what the doctors tried.”

By 2011, she was at a crossroad: Her only chance of survival was a lung transplant. “I looked at the doctors like they were monsters, because I didn’t think it was possible that I’d ever need a transplant,” Olson says. “And then I started thinking about my kids, my life …. Suddenly, everything starts to close around you.”

Olson, who is married and has raised two sons, survived the surgery, but her body quickly rejected the lungs. Over the course of the next year, she battled nausea, vomiting and weakness. Her future was bleak. It wasn’t until a change in insurance coverage permitted her to receive care at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center that things began to turn around.

The Call That Changed Her Life

As her lung capacity dwindled, eating became next to impossible. “I had to choose between taking a bite or a breath,” she says. With only 82 pounds on her emaciated 5-foot-7-inch frame, Olson was weak and had reached wits end.

“I was crying to my husband, certain I’d never get another set of lungs,” she recalls. “Within 10 minutes, St. Joseph’s called. My lungs had arrived.”

Her frail condition made surgery even more difficult. She nearly died on a couple occasions, and remained in a coma for about five weeks. “I learned later that Dr. Walia stayed in the room next to mine after the surgery to check on me throughout the night,” she said. “And he was the first person I saw when I woke up, too. They said I was their sickest transplant patient ever.”

A year and a half later, with rehab behind her, Olson looks like a model of good health and has resumed life where she left off.

“Without the transplant, I wouldn’t be alive, but nothing stops me now,” she says. “The world is open to me. I look forward to birthdays, to shopping, to growing old and gray … and watching my granddaughter go to kindergarten.”

This summer, Olson and her husband, Mike, took their 3-year-old granddaughter to Disneyland for a couple days, followed by a week on the beach in San Diego. She remains active and optimistic about the future, eternally grateful for every breath she takes and thankful to the medical team that made it possible.

“The level of care I received at St. Joseph’s is phenomenal. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to care for me,” she says. “They’re like family. They fight for you as much as you fight to stay alive.”