The expertise of UHealth surgeons at the Miami Transplant Institute have given a prominent South Florida youth minister a second chance at life following a difficult double lung transplant at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Joel Stigale’s condition was so severe; surgeons said the life-saving transplant would not have been an option at other health systems. Instead, Stigale, 41, is set to leave Jackson and resume his ministry.
Since 2001, Stigale has influenced the lives of thousands in South Florida through his organization, Catalyst Hip-Hop – an outlet for youth to come together and express themselves through art, music and dance. At the end of each meeting, Stigale, a youth minister, would share his Christian faith with those in attendance and would mentor them to live a life free from drugs, crime and violence. He was healthy, living his dream and active in the community with the support of his wife, Vivian.
Last fall, he unexpectedly faced respiratory failure that started as a lingering cough. While at an out-of-town work conference, his condition deteriorated so quickly that he could barely walk from his car to the hotel.
Stigale went to see his pulmonologist, who determined that Stigale’s lungs were functioning at just 20 percent. He was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) – a disease with no known cause or cure and from which more Americans die each year than breast cancer. His only chance at survival was a lung transplant.
Stigale was admitted to Jackson Memorial Hospital on October 28, 2015, to be evaluated by Matthias Loebe, M.D., and Nicholas Brozzi, M.D., UHealth – the University of Miami Health System transplant surgeons at the Miami Transplant Institute (MTI).
They put Stigale on an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), an artificial lung of two compartments that provided respiratory and cardiac support, until a donor was found.
“Patients who need to be placed on ECMO are often too sick for transplant," said Loebe. “His story shows for me that, when strong will, spiritual support from those who are closest to the patient and world-class medical services of many specialties come together, we can find meaningful solutions for the most complicated health issues and bring our patients back to a life filled with quality, meaning, and joy.”
Ten days after he was placed on the national transplant waiting list, a donor was found.
“I was relieved that my prayers had been answered,” said Stigale. “I had never smoked, and although my wife and I had signed up to be organ donors ourselves, we did not realize that one day we would face the need to have a second chance at life.”
Stigale’s bilateral transplant surgery on November 13, 2015, at JMH was a success. As he recovered at Jackson, Stigale was regularly visited by members of his Catalyst Hip-Hop family. During Art Basel, one particular graffiti crew he mentored, Few Distinct Chosen (FDC), dedicated a mural in Wynwood to Stigale. The mural, which currently faces I-95, reads “Get Well Soon, Joel.”
“I have been mentored by Joel since I was 16 years old, “said Carlos “Junk” Lainez, 32, leader of FDC. “We were completely devastated and worried about him; Joel is an angel amongst us and has given young people an opportunity when no one else would.”
The couple states that their transplant battle couldn’t have been made possible without the overwhelming support from their friends, hospital staff and the power of prayer.
“Joel was so sick that it was moment by moment, hour by hour, to see if he’d survive,” said his wife, Vivian.“Everyone from the doctors, nurses, techs, housekeepers and therapists, has shown so much love and compassion that it really makes a big difference for patients and their families.”
Since the surgery, Stigale has lost 50 pounds and undergone intensive rehabilitation care – physical, occupational, speech and psychological – with therapist from the Jackson Rehabilitation Hospital six days a week, at least four hours a day.
Nearly seven months after being admitted to Jackson, Joel is going home, looking forward to seeing his 16-year-old stepdaughter, Havanna and his American bulldog, Gracie. He hopes to soon return to his second home at Catalyst Hip-Hop.
As he leaves the hospital, break-dancers from Catalyst Hip-Hop will surprise Joel and his wife after the news conference outside of Ryder.