‘Amazing’ FMS teacher gets a new set of lungs

— Photo from Barbara Martucci

Colleen Ryan, left, and Barbara Martucci marked their eighth wedding anniversary on Nov. 13, the day that Ryan received a much-needed new pair of lungs.

GUILDERLAND — Teacher Colleen Ryan’s wife, Barbara Martucci, got the news that Ryan would be receiving a new set of lungs early on the morning of the couple’s eighth wedding anniversary, Nov. 13.

Just before midnight that same day, the transplant surgery had been completed.

Ryan is now “resting comfortably,” her wife said Wednesday morning. Ryan had been at the top of the national list for a transplant, as a result of a lung-scarring disease, interstitial lung disease, that hardened her lungs and constricted her breathing.

Martucci has been staying with her in Ryan’s room at New York University-Langone since Ryan was hospitalized three weeks ago. Ryan had started out in a room on the 12th floor, Martucci said, but had been moved to intensive care, on the 13th floor.

“When we came up to the thirteenth floor, I kept thinking, ‘We’re on the thirteenth floor, our wedding anniversary is on the 13th — that’s going to be the day,” Martucci said, calling it a “premonition.”

She got the call from one of the doctors on the transplant team at 12:06 a.m. on Nov. 13. The surgery, which took more than 10 hours, was completed by about 11:30 p.m.

Martucci said of the 21-year-old man whose lungs now breathe for her wife, “My heart goes out to that family, but what a blessing for them to have made that decision, or for him to have decided, himself, to become a donor.”

There’s a long road ahead and Ryan is not out of the woods yet, Martucci said. “It’ll be day-by-day.”

Surgeons needed to leave Ryan’s chest open, because there had been so much swelling. They hope to close her chest tomorrow, Martucci said, provided that the swelling continues to go down rapidly.

Ryan has a breathing tube in, but she is breathing with the new lungs, Martucci said.

“I’m feeling so hopeful, because she’s such a fighter,” she said.

Teaching together

Martucci is a teaching assistant in Ryan’s special-education classroom at Farnsworth Middle School.

The two had taught summer school this year, Martucci said, and Ryan was having trouble catching her breath then. She was diagnosed — mistakenly — with pneumonia and given antibiotics.

The couple had gone, as they always do in late summer, to Nantucket after summer school ended, and it was there that Ryan kept saying she couldn’t breathe.

Ryan and Martucci started out the academic year at Farnsworth in September but, after only a few days, they realized Ryan couldn’t continue.

“They finally did a CAT scan,” Martucci said, of an X-ray image made using computerized axial tomography. The scan showed that Ryan’s interstitial lung disease, diagnosed in 2015, had progressed much more rapidly than anyone expected.

She spent some time at home on supplemental oxygen, which helped at first.  

Ryan’s doctor in Albany knew the chief of the lung transplant team at NYU-Langone, Martucci said, and the women called and were told to come. Once Ryan was seen, they were told they couldn’t leave, said Martucci.

“This is something we thought was going to happen when she was older, and it hit her so fast,” Martucci said.

Doctors had told Ryan in 2016, Martucci said, that she might need to think about a lung transplant in a decade or so; instead, the need arose in about a year-and-a-half.

For the last two weeks, Ryan had been on an ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, machine, which oxygenated her blood outside her body and pumped it throughout her body, allowing her lungs to rest.

Doctors would wake her up once a day, Martucci said, to make sure she is still neurologically OK.

“She opens her eyes and moves her legs and her hands, responds to commands,” Martucci had said on Monday afternoon. “Just now, they had her awake, and everybody is here,” she said, referring to family members. “She actually picked up her arm.”

Ryan is an amazing teacher, and children and parents alike love her, her wife said. She is loving toward her students but also firm, Martucci said. “She makes it fun for the kids, but they know they have to do the work.”

Ryan, as part of her curriculum, took her students on trips every couple of weeks to either Crossgates Mall or Colonie Center to teach them to order and pay for food, and to talk with store employees.

Some of the parents, Martucci said, have commented that they barely recognize their children, who were never able to speak to people in stores or restaurants, but who no longer hesitate.

“Colleen’s one of the most amazing special-ed teachers I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with,” said Farnsworth’s principal, Michael Laster.

Azraelle Story, a cousin of Colleen Ryan, has set up a GoFundMe account, at https://ca.gofundme.com/colleen-ryan-lung-transplant, to raise money to help the couple with expenses, including co-pays, which are expected to be high. These expenses also include the cost of staying in New York City. As of Nov. 11, the page had raised $8,105 of its $10,000 goal.

“I taught at FMS for many years and each year would be more blown away by Colleen’s humble dedication and love for her students,” former colleague Danielle Camarata wrote in a comment on the GoFundMe page.

Another colleague, Courtney Elder, wrote, “I've worked with Colleen for many years as her classroom's music-therapy provider. Such a fun, loving, down-to-earth teacher who loves her students and shows it in everything she does for them.”

“Our kids need you,” someone else wrote. “Hurry back!”


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