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After life-saving lung transplant, local couple give a $2 million endowed chair to Cleveland Clinic

Rick and Lori Buoncore with Dr. Mehta (middle)

 The Buoncore Family Endowed Chair in Lung Transplantation, a $2 million gift to further research lung transplantation, was recently award to the Cleveland Clinic after Dr. Atul Mehta gave Lori Buoncore a second shot at a healthy life.
 
Buoncore, 60, has always been an active person. But in 2008 a cough and wheezing started to slow her down. “Everything else about her was 100 percent healthy,” says Lori’s husband Rick. “She never smoked in her life and she doesn’t drink. She’s the cleanest person I know.”
 
Soon after the cough began Lori was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease (ILD) – which damages lung tissues, inflames the air sacs and can permanently scar the tissue between the air sacs. Scarring of these tissues leads to the lungs becoming stiff – making breathing very difficult.
 
“Slowly but surely the capacity of her lungs got eaten up and they got harder,” recalls Rick. She had 20 percent capacity in her left lung and 50 percent in her right.” Oxygen helped for a while, but Lori couldn’t even take the oxygen mask off long enough to pose for a photo.
 
Lori needed a lung transplant. She was referred to pulmonologist Atul Mehta at the Cleveland Clinic Lung Transplant Program and went on the transplant list in August 2014. Then, after a couple “dry runs” to the Cleveland Clinic, the Aurora couple got the call that there was a match and lungs were available in November 2014. Lori checked in and received a double lung transplant.
 
There are currently about 1,500 people on the waiting list for lung transplants. Last year 1,925 lung transplants were performed nationally last year and  the Cleveland Clinic did 106 of them, the second most in the country. The one year survival rates for lung transplants at the Clinic is about 88 percent in 2013, which is slightly higher than the national average.
 
Almost a year later, Lori is doing well. After the transplant, the Buoncores were so grateful they were looking for a way to say thank you to Mehta and the Clinic. “They should have a medical school and put his picture up,” says Rick. “I’ve never seen a doctor who not only has technical ability, but patient ability. He’s call up and ask, ‘how’s she doing?’”
 
“Everyone loves him,” Lori adds of Mehta.
 
Rick and Lori talked to Michelle Amato, a friend and vice chair of the Clinic’s Philanthropy Institute, about how to best thank Mehta. “I asked, ‘what’s the greatest honor I can do for him,’ and Michelle said an endowed chair is the greatest honor a doctor can get.
 
So earlier this year, Rick and Lori established the $2 million Buoncore Family Endowed Chair in Lung Transplantation. The chair will fund research in lung transplantation outcomes.  The five year survival rate after a lung transplant is 55 percent. Mehta would like to improve on that, although he says he has patients who have survived more than 20 years.
 
“I didn’t ask for anything from them, but [Rick] kept telling me he want to do something,” recalls Mehta. “It was just a surprise to me. But it’s good for the Clinic, it’s good for patients. My biggest honor is when the patient asked me to take care of her.”
 
While the Buoncores wanted to create the chair in Mehta’s name, he refused. So the three decided it will be in the Buoncore name until Mehta retires, at which time the endowed chair title will be changed to his name.
 

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 18 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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