At 63, I was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, caused by a rare case of pneumonia that I never knew I had.
When I first heard my diagnosis, it was terrible. I can’t even describe how mad I was at the world. I couldn’t figure it out. When did I have pneumonia? When did I even have a cold? Where did I catch this? What happened? What did I do wrong? I was blaming everybody, and I sure wasn’t a very pleasant guy to be around for a while. Turns out, it didn’t matter whether I remembered having pneumonia or not; the lung specialist told me that I had definitely had it sometime in my life. My lungs were completely black. The situation was dire.
So, my breath just kept getting shorter and shorter, to the point where I had to quit my job in 2010. I was on oxygen full time by then, and I couldn’t work while I was pulling a tank around. This just intensified the anxiety I’ve had my whole life; I’d get panic attacks, thinking I was going to run out of air.
I’ve always been someone who has lived life on the edge. I used to take a lot of risks when I was younger. But now, realizing that I was running out of time, I was terrified. Here I was, retired, having to quit my second job, enjoying spending time with my beautiful grandkids... and I wanted to live! But the doctors told me I didn’t have long. My lungs were too damaged.
I’d always known I would die someday, but suddenly coming face to face with it, I was terrified. And oh man, I was mad.
As time went on, I got used to the idea that my time here was limited. My anger settled down a bit, and I tried to make the most of the life that I still had. My wife was an incredible support. She always said, “We’ll get through this. We just have to take it as it comes, and see what we have to do.”
I didn’t think my chances of getting a new pair of lungs were very good. But when I was 68, someone from the transplant center called me up and said that I had made the list. She was quick to warn me that most people who get onto the list for any kind of transplant usually die before an organ becomes available. There just aren’t enough body parts to go around.
I remember laying in bed ... feeling totally helpless and exhausted. I would think, “Let’s just turn it all off. Just take me out of here. I’m done fighting. Let’s just go.”
When I heard that, I thought, “I’ve had a pretty good life. I will pull this oxygen cart until I can’t anymore, and then I won’t worry about it.”
Five weeks to the day after getting on the transplant list, my coordinator from the hospital called, asking what my wife and I were doing. I said that we were just sitting here talking. Then she said, “Why don’t you get in the car and come down? We’ve got some lungs coming. You better get down here right away.”
We didn’t even have time to think about it. But once we got there, that’s when the real panic started to set in. The doctor told us all of the percentages of people who die on the table, the next day, the next week, and so on. Though they’re getting really good at transplants, the odds for someone surviving the surgery at my age was essentially a crapshoot.
There was a moment when I asked myself, “Do I really want to do this?” I could’ve backed out. I could have said no. But if I had done that, chances were they wouldn’t call me for a transplant again. So, I just figured this is the way it was supposed to be. I was at peace with whatever might happen.
It was a 13-hour surgery, but I didn’t wake up until a week later.
The good part was that I was alive. The bad part was that the recovery was excruciating. When the doctors told me that the biggest hurdle would be psychological, and that during the first year my brain would still think I have my old set of lungs, I thought it was all a bunch of hooey. But that first year, I fought the nurses tooth and nail. They’d want to get me up and take me on a walk, and I would find every excuse under the sun not to go. It was too hard. Every day was a struggle. I remember laying in bed, not being able to do what I wanted, feeling totally helpless and exhausted. I would think, “Let’s just turn it all off. Just take me out of here. I’m done fighting. Let’s just go.”
But this one little nurse, she kept after me. She got me out of bed, made me walk, and just got me going. Without her, I don’t think I’d be here. I stayed in the hospital for around five weeks. I went to rehab for another five weeks, then came home. I constantly fought getting better.
But after a year passed, things got a lot easier. I wasn’t running any marathons, but I was breathing on my own. I didn’t have to carry any oxygen, and I didn’t have to watch what I did. I took a lot of medicine, and experienced a lot of side effects, but that was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. I’m so happy that I did it. I’m so happy I’m here. I have grandkids that I would never have met otherwise! I’m enjoying every day. My wife and I take care of our grandkids a few times a week, and I go to coffee every morning with a bunch of guys I used to work with. I can do pretty much anything I want to now, although I still have to wear a mask in the cold weather, and my muscle tone never quite bounced back.
The guy who gave me his lungs was a 26-year-old kid. He was so young when he died; his whole life was ahead of him. But his organs were given to five different people across America. I’m so thankful, but at the same time, I feel so guilty about it. I was 68 when I got his lungs. Because he died, I’m living right now. Thinking about it all, I just try and make the most of what I’ve got. Since my surgery, I’ve been able to help other transplant patients in the recovery journey. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m still here.
If you’ve come face-to-face with death, you might relate to the roller coaster of terror, peace, guilt, and hopelessness that I experienced. You’re not alone in this. If you leave your information below, someone from our team will connect with you to listen to your story.