Tugon Lung cancer
Alex Tugon, 37, a Filipino expat worker, had a complete lung failure. He is grateful for his second lease on life after undergoing a double lung transplant in the UAE. Image Credit: Clint Egbert | Gulf News

Dubai/Abu Dhabi: A 37-year-old Filipino expat has expressed his gratitude to the UAE after receiving a new lease on life following a double lung transplant.

Alex Salgo Tugon and his sister Ana May have been working hard to support their parents and four siblings back home in the Philippines. A supervisor with a pest control company, Tugon believes his immune system had gone weak because of his lifestyle, and his habit of smoking cigarette and vaping worsened his health.

“I ignored my cough but then I had high fever and breathlessness,” Tugon told Gulf News. In September 2023, he had a sudden onset of a severe lung infection.

“I had become unconscious at a private hospital,” he recalled.

Complete lung failure

Tugon was diagnosed with lung failure and got shifted to another hospital in Dubai. The doctors revealed that he needed a double lung transplant. He was put on a special lung bypass machine known as ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) for over two months.

This is considered the last resort for patients whose lungs have completely failed. In some circumstances, the lungs start to recover and ECMO can be removed. However, Tugon’s lungs had completely failed with no chance of recovery.

“I became conscious after a week or so, but I remained confined to the machines and I couldn’t talk or walk for months,” said Tugon.

During this time, the volunteers from the St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Dubai stepped in to support him.

“Our Parish volunteers and medical team had several meetings and discussion with the family and the hospital. The case was then brought to the attention of Cleveland Clinic in Abu Dhabi,” Fr Lennie Connully, Parish Priest of the church, told Gulf News.

8-hour-long surgery

Tugon was then transferred to Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, part of the M42 network, and was ultimately listed for a double lung transplant and intense rehabilitation with the physical therapy team.

In order to offer a life-saving transplant with support from the Cleveland Clinic and the National Programme for Donation and Transplantation of Human Organs and Tissue - ‘Hayat’, endorsed by the Ministry of Health and Prevention (MoHAP) and the Department of Health – Abu Dhabi (DoH), Tugon was approved for transplant and related treatment, CCAD said in a statement to Gulf News.

Alex receiving care at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi (2)-1707458158225
Alex Tugon spent his time doing illustrations while receiving care at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi. Image Credit: Clint Egbert | Gulf News

“After a two-month period of optimisation, Tugon underwent a very complex eight-hour long surgery where both of his lungs were removed and replaced with normal healthy donor lungs. The surgery was very successful and within 12 hours of receiving the new lungs Tugon started to recover. The ECMO machine was removed on the same day and within a week the ventilator was also removed,” it said.

When Tugon went to the Cleveland Clinic, he was on the ventilator and ECMO. Therefore, he had never spoken to any physicians at the hospital.

“It was an amazing opportunity and a heartfelt moment for everyone to finally hear Alex’s own voice after the ventilator was removed,” the medical team stated.

Within two weeks of his transplant, Tugon made a remarkable recovery and started walking and breathing the same air as everyone else.

After his postoperative physical therapy and rehabilitation programme, Tugon got discharged and has been recuperating very well.

Gratitude, caution

For him and May, who works as a nanny, Tugon’s “rebirth” is nothing but a miracle. They said they are grateful to God, the medical staff at the hospitals, the church for the care and great support.

Tugon said he has another reason to be grateful: “I’m also getting support from my company, Ideal Service LLC; they make sure everything will be OK until I fully recover.”

Tugon and Ana expressed “a big Shukran” to the UAE government for making sure that people of all backgrounds and nationalities get the gift of life through organ transplant.

NAT 240122 Alex Tugon CE007-1707458155074
Alex Tugon underwent a very complex eight-hour long surgery in Abu Dhabi, where both of his lungs were removed and replaced with normal healthy lungs from a donor. Within 12 hours of receiving the new lungs, Tugon started to recover. Image Credit: Clint Egbert | Gulf News

“My gratitude goes out to all our Parish volunteers for their time and selfless dedication in serving the underprivileged. I am also extremely thankful to the donor’s family and the medical teams that saved my life,” said Tugon.

He also had a word of caution to smokers. “Please quit smoking and vaping if you want to live healthy,” he said.

Fr Connully said: “When Tugon and his sister approached us to tide over his condition, we decided to help him on humanitarian grounds. We remain grateful to the UAE Government for the tolerance and empathy towards the underprivileged. We commend the spirit and strength of both Alex and his sister Ana, who remind us to always keep hope alive,” he added.

Complex procedures

CCAD- Dr. Usman Ahmad-1707458162328
Dr Usman Ahmad, Department Chair of Thoracic Surgery in the Heart, Vascular and Thoracic Institute. Image Credit: Supplied

Meanwhile, the doctors at the Cleveland Clinic hailed the UAE’s Hayat initiative which has ensured life-saving transplant surgeries such as Tugon’s possible and explained the complex nature of these surgeries.

Dr Usman Ahmad, Department Chair of Thoracic Surgery in the Heart, Vascular and Thoracic Institute, said: “The complexity of replacing vital organs such as heart and lungs presents unique challenges, requiring not just technical skill but also multidisciplinary teamwork, and intimate knowledge of the delicate balance and compatibility between the organ and the recipient.

Complex transplants such as lung transplant is a tremendous balancing act where the teams have to optimise the donor lungs, recipient’s condition before surgery, careful matching and accurate estimation of timing during which the lungs are removed from the donor and transplanted into the recipient. This complex act is performed by teams of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, ICU doctors and medical physicians working together seamlessly.”

CCAD- Dr. Fadi Hamed-1707458160897
Dr. Fadi Hamed, Section Head of Medical-Surgical Critical Care in the Critical Care Institute

Dr. Fadi Hamed, Section Head of Medical-Surgical Critical Care in the Critical Care Institute, said: “Our role in stabilising and preparing Alex for this life-saving surgery underscores the critical importance of interdisciplinary teamwork in critical care.

"Managing the complexities of ECMO and mechanical ventilation, while orchestrating seamless care transitions, our team demonstrated the high level of medical excellence and compassionate carey.

"The complexity of care does not stop when the surgery is done, but the journey to recovery and preparation of discharge is another milestone that needs a synchronised approach and involvement of multiple teams.”

What is Hayat
“Hayat,” meaning life in English, is the National Programme for Organ and Tissue Donation and Transplantation in the UAE. Under the leadership of Dr Ali Abdulkarim Al Obaidli, chairman of the UAE’s National Organ Transplant Committee and Dr Maria Gomez from the Human Organ and Tissue Transplant Regulatory Office, ’Hayat’ has seen great success.

Since 2017 till the end of 2023, the Hayat programme has seen 582 organs transplanted which included transplants of 328 kidneys, 199 liver, 16 heart, 26 lungs, and 13 pancreas. Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi said the facility alone has conducted over 530 life-saving transplant surgeries so far, including 25 lung transplant procedures within the last one and a half year.

One person has the potential of saving the lives of eight individuals who are in desperate need of an organ transplant, including those suffering from cancer, heart disease, lung failure, cirrhosis, kidney failure and more.

More than 25,000 residents have signed up to donate organs under Hayat, with more than 4,000 of them doing it to set a Guinness World Record for the highest number of online organ donation registrations within a one-hour timeframe on January 31.