Despite many challenges along the way, a new lung lets Loretta and Sy Ziegelman celebrate their 60th anniversary and beyond.
Featured photo by Maria Lyle Photography
Generations of Detroit women revere Dr. Sy Ziegelman, an OB/GYN for more 40 years. Along with active careers, Sy and Loretta, a retired social worker, raised three children. They led, Sy says, “fulfilling and exciting lives.”
In November 2008, this fun-loving couple vacationed in St. Petersburg, Fla., and marched, costumed, in the Key West Fantasy Fest (along with thousands, many wearing only body paint).
“Marching in parades would soon become unthinkable,” Sy says. Two months later, Loretta developed trouble breathing.
This began an ordeal of bouncing from one doctor to another, from Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak to Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit to University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor. A frustrating and bewildering experience for a husband whose life’s work was in medicine.
Loretta was eventually diagnosed with IPF, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis — what Sy calls “a fancy name for a deadly disease.” Sy says as many people die from IPF as die from breast cancer each year. The only hope of surviving is to obtain a new lung.
So, Sy swung into action. As his wife deteriorated and developed other complications, he read all the journals, contacted professionals and checked his wife’s blood counts and sent reports. “Being a physician helped me to navigate the minefield of medicine,” Sy says.
In March 2009, a lung biopsy confirmed the diagnosis.
Though IPF is a fatal disease, Sy says, “No one uses those words. They say there is no recognized treatment as opposed to the fact the disease is fatal. I refused to accept it.”
The next months were a succession of transfusions, iron infusions and pulmonary rehab. “Every minute was devoted to some medical issue,” Sy says. “There was no end to the hurdles. For six days, I saw my beloved wife unconscious in the ICU on a ventilator. Would she live or die?”
That crisis necessitated Loretta spending several weeks in the hospital and many hours in rehab. Still, she made it past that hurdle as well.
“And then it was like someone turned a switch,” Sy says. “The simplest activity required oxygen.” Realizing his wife needed him full time, Sy retired from his medical practice. He recalled a Yiddish proverb his father taught him: “You can’t dance at two weddings with one rear end.”
One of their twin grandsons, Evan, then 10, made a DVD about his Gramma, his “most admired person.” Ultimately, the video would be shared with the lung transplant team at the Cleveland Clinic. Nurses, doctors and PAs watched it, Sy reports, “all teary-eyed seeing the disease and his grandmother through Evan’s eyes.”
U-M refused to consider a transplant. At 70, they said, Loretta was too old. Sy’s senior associate and mentor Dr. Mort Lazar, 96, advised him to take Loretta to Cleveland’s Cleveland Clinic.
There the transplant process began. Physical exams, blood tests, X-rays, CT scans, social workers, psychiatrist, financial counselors, cardiac catheterization, endoscopy, pulmonary function tests and medical records. “You don’t get an organ transplant without turning over every pebble. Some I didn’t even know existed,” he says.
By Thanksgiving 2009, Loretta’s breathing became more labored. “We were consumed with the preliminaries leading to winning the ‘lung lottery,’” Sy recalls. The paperwork was endless. Loretta’s myriad of test results would be programmed in a computer that would produce a score. “The challenge is to survive until the score puts you at the top of the list.”
That December, Sy says, he and Loretta were sitting in their bedroom watching TV. “I was really watching Loretta, as I did every day. Did she have enough oxygen? How could I help her? The phone rang. We screamed and we cried. She was listed!”
But time dragged on. Loretta’s oxygen needs grew. The Ziegelmans packed a bag in their car, kept the gas tank full. If the call came, they’d have to race to Cleveland.
They drove back and forth to Cleveland for testing. Loretta’s lungs worsened. She was raised to No. 1 on the transplant list. After many weeks, a call came, and they sped to Cleveland. The lung wasn’t healthy enough. “We had no concept that a dry run happens at least 30 percent of the time,” Sy says. Back to waiting.
“When would we get the call? The winter was snowy. Would we make it to Cleveland in time?” Four snow tires on his front-wheel drive Avalon were his insurance. “Would Loretta’s lungs hold out until we got the call. I forgot how to sleep as I listened to each breath she was still able to take.” Several weeks later, another call. Another race to Cleveland. Another lung that wasn’t OK.
They drove home in silence, “exhausted and without hope. When hope vanishes in the transplant race, the race is lost. The challenge was to get through the day and the next and the next until it was Loretta’s turn. We had to believe,” he says.
On April 9, 2010, they met with the director of the transplant group in Cleveland. The doctor was “kind and honest.” Loretta’s need was “critical.”
They drove home again in silence. “The silence of acknowledgement that life as a couple would end if Loretta didn’t get her call,” Sy says.
At 4:30 a.m. the next morning, the phone rang. There was a lung. “I sobbed uncontrollably,” Sy says. “Would the third time be a charm? I had to believe, or I’d die of a broken heart.”
After the surgery, Dr. Ken McCurry, Loretta’s surgeon, reported Loretta had received a right lung transplant and he thought she’d do well. Sy says, “I don’t have an appropriate vocabulary. She was alive! She was alive!”
The next weeks and months were challenging. Loretta met her “lung sister” — Sandy from Muskegon received the left lung of the same donor. Loretta suffered side effects from a series of drugs. She was encouraged to exercise. At the end of April, Loretta did what any self-respecting girl given a new lease on life would do. She went to a mall.
Soon after, Loretta’s lung became infected. Sy emailed friends: “My honey has been given a chance to live. We will keep the faith.” Day 8 post-transplant, Loretta’s body began rejecting the organ. She received high doses of steroids. Fatigue and fluid retention and emotional and blood sugar swings followed. But, in June, they took their grandsons to the zoo.
After three months in Cleveland, they returned home to West Bloomfield. Nine months post-surgery, Sy reported to friends, “Believe it or not, we still love each other and are still speaking — most of the time.”
On June 4, 2010, Loretta emailed friends: “I am home.”
Not for long. Shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, fevers, other infections and a blood clot followed. Still, they celebrated their 51st anniversary in Cleveland on June 24. When the hospital heard about the occasion, they organized a surprise luncheon that was covered by the ABC affiliate and shown on the 6 p.m. news.
A year post-transplant, Sy wrote, “Looking back, I’m uncertain as to how we survived all the ‘oops!’ we were forced to deal with that first year. It was more than tenacity. We couldn’t give up or give in. And it was about ‘we.’ No one can do this alone.”
Sy continues to play Loretta’s professional nudge. Exercise! Take your pills! What did you eat? He has done so for the last nine years. Years in which they celebrated grandchildren Thea, Evan and Sam’s b’nai mitzvahs and their high school graduations, granddaughter Melanie’s graduation from U-M’s Ross Business School, grandson Steven’s wedding and Loretta’s 80th surprise birthday party this January in Florida.
“And many more days we wouldn’t have shared without this gift of life,” Sy says. “We lie low. We’re together. It’s OK.”
Sy wrote an extensive and sensitive journal about their medical journey that was turned into a bound book by their son. In it, Sy expresses appreciation through the Hebrew Shecheyanu blessing. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe who has kept us alive, sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.”
Editor’s Note: In the years since this story by Franklin author Suzy Farbman was posted on the local website readthespirit.com, the Ziegelmans have stayed the course, meeting any challenges — including a bout of pneumonia in 2015 that damaged her transplanted lung — with the same faith, love and perseverance that are hallmarks of their relationship.
“I have a lot of faith and I believe that helped a lot … and I believe miracles happen,” Loretta said last week of the nine years since her lung transplant. “My family has been cheering me on every step of the way, and Sy has been wonderful. He’s a very special person.”
On June 24, Sy and Loretta Ziegelman celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary with their family: children Sharon Ross of Waterford, Daryl and Cindy Ziegelman of Walled Lake and Julie Ziegelman of Austin; grandchildren Carly and Steven Betel, Melanie Betel, Evan Ziegelman, Sam Ziegelman, Beatrix Jackman and Thea Jackman. They are expecting their first great-grandchild this month.