Lung transplant gives guitarist another second chance

Monnette Sudler underwent a double lung transplant in October. On Saturday, she hosts her annual guitar summit, an evening of performances, in Blue Bell.
Monnette Sudler underwent a double lung transplant in October. On Saturday, she hosts her annual guitar summit, an evening of performances, in Blue Bell. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 06, 2014

When Monnette Sudler's phone rang on Oct. 27, she recognized the number.

It was Temple University Hospital.

As she breathed oxygen from a tank, Sudler, 61, a Germantown jazz guitarist who has played with the greats, hardly dared to hope: Was this her chance for a new life?

The caller asked how soon Sudler could get to the hospital. Lungs that were a likely match for her body were being flown in from out of state.

She was there within two hours.

As she was prepared for surgery, she thought nervously about what doctors had told her. One possible outcome: The transplant would succeed. She would be able to breathe on her own. The other: It might not go well. Her body might reject the lungs.

The procedure began shortly after midnight Oct. 28.

She woke up in intensive care, groggy, hooked to tubes, in pain - and afraid.

Two days later, Sudler was on a gurney, being wheeled back to her room after a test. "Do you have my oxygen tank?" she asked the aide. He replied, "What tank?"

She began to cry. She realized she was breathing on her own.

Nationally, 1,600 people are waiting for lung transplants. In eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware - served by the nonprofit Gift of Life Donor Program - 101 are in need of lungs. The average waiting time is 428 days.

One donor can save or enhance the lives of more than 50 people, said John Green, a spokesman for the program.

Donors are identified by a notation on their driver's licenses. But those who did not register when renewing their licenses can go to the program's website, www.donors1.org, and sign up.

Sudler was home about a week after surgery. What she remembers most about being in her apartment that night was not hearing the oxygen machine.

The next day, she picked up one of her guitars.

Two of her fingers were numb, and she was sore from the intravenous tubes. But "I was happy."

Music has long been in Sudler's family. Her mother sang. A great-uncle played piano. A grandmother liked string instruments.

Sudler started the piano at age 8, but at 15, she got a guitar from her stepfather.

As an adult, she played with such jazz artists as Archie Shepp, Cecil McBee, Grover Washington Jr., and Hugh Masekela. Along the way, someone dubbed her Philadelphia's first lady of guitar.

But her performances slowed about six years ago, when she was found to have idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which damages the lungs. She wound up on oxygen 24 hours a day.

She had health insurance, but not enough. So last October, her friends held a benefit at the 7165 Club, aided by Jazz Bridge, a regional nonprofit organization that assists musicians in times of crisis. "It was amazing how so many people attended and performed and showed their love and prayed," she said.

About two weeks later, she got the call.

Sudler's doctors told her it would take a year to recover fully from the surgery.

She credits her "team" - her two sons, her brother, and two friends - with making everything possible. They rarely left her side.

Her youngest son, Lemar Honesty, 25, a carpenter who also lives in Germantown, described the experience as "a roller coaster, but at the end of the day, it was a miracle." He added: "It was hard for me to see my mom struggling like that, because she was always Superwoman to me. But she's just so strong. She kept her thoughts positive."

Gradually, the numbness and tingling in her fingers disappeared. After nearly two months, Sudler was ready to play in public, at a Christmas party for pulmonary patients at Temple.

She was nervous. She played only one song: her own composition, "Back to Living Again."

Sudler is feeling so well - they've already kicked her out of rehab, and she's back to teaching - that she's preparing for a "guitar summit" Saturday.

She began the event five years ago as a celebration of the guitar and its diversity. It's percussive. It's melodic. It can wail, and it can croon.

Sudler does not yet know how her transplant has changed her - or her music.

"Honestly, I'm just beginning to explore that," she said. She always took life seriously, but now she is even more aware that "every moment is really important. You just live life to the fullest. That's all you really have is that moment. Make the best of it. Treat people well. And it comes back to you."

It was a thrill recently just to go to her grandson's karate practice.

Organ donors' identities are not disclosed, but Sudler wrote a thank-you note to the family that the hospital will deliver.

It wasn't easy, she said. "You have to be empathetic to the fact that they lost someone they loved. It had to be balanced and honest. A letter of my thoughts."

Like many, Sudler wishes she could change some parts of her past. "I'm proud of a lot of things in my life, and I'm not so proud of other things."

She's overcome adversity and come back from the depths. Twenty-one years ago, she was involved in a fatal car accident.

"The family, they've forgiven me. But it took me a while to forgive myself. I'm grateful, very grateful, to have an opportunity to give back, and I'm thankful for a second chance."

Her new lungs have given her "a chance to get things done that maybe I procrastinated about. You think you have a lot of time to do things in your life, and then you realize you don't really."

She considers Oct. 28, the day of her surgery, her new birthday.


Sudler's Guitar Summit

The jazz guitarist Monnette Sudler's guitar summit will begin

at 8 p.m. Saturday at Montgomery County Community College's Science Center Theater, 340 DeKalb Pike, Blue Bell.

Performers include Tosin Abasi on eight-string guitar, the bop-based Sheryl Bailey Trio, Japanese guitarist Hiroya Tsukamoto, the blues duo Mulebone, and jazz vocalist Sherry Butler. Sudler also will play.

Tickets are $24. They can be purchased at www.mc3.edu/arts/lively-arts or by calling 215-641-6518.


sbauers@phillynews.com

215-854-5147 @sbauers

www.inquirer.com/greenspace

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