Medical Hero Spotlight: Rev. Donna J. Matlach & Eosinophilic Asthma

“My sister Roseanne and and I love the movie, ‘The Wizard of Oz’. I told Roseanne I felt like I was going to see the Wizard. There was so much that happened before I got to see her, just like a lot happened to Dorothy in the movie, recounts Reverend Donna J. Matlach, about meeting Dr. Sally Wenzel of the University of Pittsburg Medical Center to consult about Donna’s severe eosinophilic asthma. My granddaughter, Phoebe, even said ‘Nana is going to see the wizard!'” Donna’s medical journey has been arduous and at times, terrifying, (Donna has had severe eosinophilic asthma for more than a decade) but her upbeat nature shines through during our conversation about her experience with clinical research participation.

“It can’t be controlled with the typical medications that are used with other types of asthma. It’s another level of asthma – it goes up in levels. Mine is severe, which is the highest level. It took many years to figure out why it couldn’t be controlled,” explains Donna. “I was in and out of the hospital, 3 to 4 times a year, and in the doctor’s office 3 to 4 times per month. I was on mass quantities of corticosteroids taken orally and by inhalation.” The steroids impacted her overall health, including weight gain and brittle bones leading to several fractures.

The severity of her symptoms sapped Donna of her physical strength, but not her inner fortitude. Taking matters decidedly into her own hands, Donna went on a cross-country journey in order to find medical advice and effective treatment. Conducting a lot of research on her own, Donna visited 28 doctors, the majority being pulmonary specialists, in 12 hospitals, nationwide. In a frustrating turn of events, they all provided different diagnoses and advice. To make matters worse, the nebulizer and cortiscosteroid medications Donna was taking were not adequately controlling her illness.

“My asthma was so misdiagnosed that at one point, doctors from a major medical facility told me I should see a psychiatrist. I was on a nebulizer every hour to stop the coughing and wheezing,” says Donna. “I’ve had over 600 allergy tests. I’m not allergic to anything.” Donna continued on her quest for relief from her symptoms. Donna consulted with a physician in Colorado who recommended she meet with Dr. Wenzel.

“Dr. Wenzel is the guru. She founded the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute,” says Donna.

During one of her many visits to Pittsburghwith Dr Wenzel, Donna had video assisted thoracic surgery to take biopsies and view her lungs with a camera. “I woke up with a tube in my chest to prevent my lungs from collapsing. The pain was so bad I ended up having a full-blown asthma attack, even with the pain medication pump. I’ve had a lot of surgeries in my life, including two C-Sections, and this was the worst!” says Donna.

Donna has had two 6-hour surgeries on her sinuses in the past several years. Both times, her sinuses were evaluated to be 98% blocked. “I had no taste or smell for 3 years because the sinuses and asthma were impacting each other. Everything is connected,” says Donna. When Donna arrived for the first surgery, she was told her lungs were too weak to undergo the procedure. Dr. Wenzel was concerned she would not survive the anesthesia. When Donna was able to have the first sinus surgery, several months later, Dr. Wenzel advised Donna that the positive results she was experiencing would last about three years.

“Wouldn’t you know it, it was just about 3 years to the month and I needed to have another surgery. Dr. Wenzel was right – that’s why I call her The Wizard,” says Donna. The second sinus surgery removed a bone from the left and right side of Donna’s frontal sinuses.

Dr. Wenzel advised Donna to investigate participating in clinical research to find other ways to manage her asthma. Dr. Wenzel assisted her with this process, but Donna was told she was not sick enough to participate in the first clinical trial to which she applied. This was perplexing to Donna because, she recounts that “I have been catching pneumonia twice year!”.

Dr. Wenzel located another clinical trial and Donna qualified as a participant. The clinical trial site was in California.

“I flew from my home in Arizona to California, once a month, at my own cost, for three years. I ended up being a poster child for the sponsoring company. I now speak at lectures for them about my experience, in New York City and other places,” says Donna.

The medication she received in the clinical trial in California was not immediately effective. “It took about 6 months to get into your system. At first it was an IV medication, and then it became an injectable,” says Donna. “My asthma is like a firecracker. It will either fizzle out or it will explode.” A couple of years later, that treatment stopped working.

During this time, Donna’s health was also being monitored in her then-home-state of Arizona. “I was at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, waiting for a lung function test, and while I was there, I had a severe asthma attack. It came out of the clear blue sky. I ended up in the ER. God put me in a place where I could be helped and I wasn’t alone. I’ve had three near fatal episodes because of the asthma,” Donna recalls.

After the clinical trial that Donna participated in, Dr. Wenzel prescribed a biologic that had recently come to market. “It took 4 months for it to start working and I took it for a year. But I was still back and forth with ER visits that always turned into a hospital stay, unfortunately,” says Donna.

During her hospital stays, Donna continued to work on her studies towards her Masters of Divinity. Even though she was very ill, Donna says that “God told me… You’re not done.” She subsequently studied several more years and received her Doctorate in Ministry and Master’s in life coaching.

Dr. Wenzel then prescribed a third biologic medication, which was not part of a clinical trial.

“I go to Pittsburgh twice a year to see Dr. Wenzel and we’ve become close friends. I love her. My heart told me, when I met her, that this was going to be the best doctor I could possibly see,” says Donna, smiling.

Donna’s family was supportive of her decision to join a clinical trial. She looked for patient advocacy organizations for severe asthma, and there were none established at that time. In response, Donna co-founded the Severe Asthma Foundation with Dr. Wenzel and Brenda, another severe asthma patient of Dr Wenzel’s.  Donna served as president until they were subsequently invited to merge with the Allergy and Asthma Network where Donna serves on the Board of Directors as an asthma advocate.

Donna has experienced, first-hand, the serious impacts of severe asthma. “It’s not just physical. It effects your emotional well-being. It effects your family, your day-to-day life, your finances. No one ever asked me about those things, in doctor’s appointments – not until I met Dr. Wenzel,” says Donna.

When asked if she would recommend clinical research participation to others, Donna enthusiastically responds “Absolutely. It can be life saving. Why would you not? You could have side effects, but for me, how could it be any worse, since I was having near fatal episodes? You have to keep searching. Clinical trials can be the answer. Why would you not want to try it? This is why I am a patient advocate. I love sharing information about clinical trials with people. That’s why I went into the ministry. I know God has a purpose for my life to reach out to people with similar physical issues as a friend, minister, and counselor. ”

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