‘We are supposed to grow old together’

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A leap into a swimming pool.

An evening bonfire. A walk in the woods.

Enjoying an active vacation with his wife, kids and grandkids—for John McKay, there’s no better way to celebrate his new life post lung transplant.

Just a year ago, this moment was far from certain.

John worried if he would ever get an organ donation to replace his ailing lungs. He feared he might not live to see another summer.

“I didn’t think this day would come,” he said. “It’s just amazing. A whole new life.”

“It is a great gift,” said Toni, his wife of 39 years. “It is absolutely just a magnanimous gift.”

In early March, John, a 59-year-old man from Ionia, Michigan, received a new set of lungs in a transplant surgery at the Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.

The surgery capped several years of struggle with lung disease for John.

His first sign of problems occurred on Christmas Day 2016, when his wife, Toni, took him to a hospital emergency department with a respiratory infection.

All he remembers is the doctor saying, “You are a very sick young man. You have pneumonia.”

He soon learned he had pulmonary fibrosis, a condition that causes severe scarring in his lungs.

Over the next few years, his condition worsened. John made several more trips to the hospital for pneumonia.

He needed supplemental oxygen around the clock. He carried an oxygen tank with him everywhere he went—and checked to make sure he had plenty of backup.

He continued to work, as a buyer at the auto manufacturing firm Ventra, but had little energy for anything else.

He worried about the impact on Toni, as she took over all the chores around the house. John wanted to pitch in—do laundry, take out the trash, mow the lawn. But when he tried, he quickly became breathless and weak.

‘He was very determined’

In 2019, he discussed the possibility of a lung transplant with Reda Girgis, MD, the medical director of lung transplantation and pulmonary hypertension in the Spectrum Health Richard DeVos Heart and Lung Transplant Program.

Before he could be eligible for a transplant, however, John had hurdles to overcome.

First, he needed to lose weight. Between steroids and lack of activity, his weight had risen to 279 pounds.

John worked steadily at his diet, and he eventually dropped 75 pounds.

That milestone represented incredible determination, said his pulmonologist, Anupam Kumar, MD.

“It is very challenging for patients like John to lose weight because you can’t do as much (exercise) and you have steroids on board,” he said. “But he was very determined. He had a lot of things he wanted to do with his life.”

As John lost weight, another hurdle emerged—a blockage in a heart artery. He underwent a procedure to place a stent in the artery. For six months afterward, he took blood thinners—which made him ineligible for transplant surgery.

Finally, in February, John’s medical team determined he was ready. They placed his name on the national transplant list.

And John began to wait, wondering when—or if—donor lungs would become available.

At an appointment for a heart catheterization, he talked about his fears for the future—and his determination to survive.

“I get scared,” he said. “What if I don’t pull through? What’s going to happen to my wife?

John and Toni met at Chippewa Hills High School, performing in the school play, “My Fair Lady.” She sang in the chorus, and he played the role of Freddie, the lovesick young man who sings “On the Street Where You Live.”

One day he found a note in his locker from Toni that read, “I’d like to get to know you.”

They have been together ever since.

“We are supposed to grow old together,” John said. “We made a promise. And by golly, we are going to do it.”

Receiving the call

At home, John kept a suitcase packed.

At work, he had an “away” message ready to send, as soon as he got the call.

One morning in early March, 16 days after he made the national transplant list, John received a call at work from transplant coordinator Jennifer Hartman, RN, CPTC.

“We have lungs for you,” she said.

For a moment, John fell silent. Not quite believing his ears.

“I was just flabbergasted,” he said. “I know I screamed. I was in my office and everybody came running.”

Hartman encouraged him to head home, talk to Toni, and come to the hospital.

Delivering that news was especially sweet, Hartman said, after watching how hard John had worked to reach that moment. She marveled at his ability to keep working, even when he needed a high level of oxygen delivered constantly.

“He was very determined all the way around,” she said.

Early the next morning, John lay in a bed at the Meijer Heart Center waiting to be wheeled into the operating room, a mixture of emotions swirling in his heart.

“Excited. Scared. All of the above,” he said.

Lead transplant surgeon Edward Murphy, MD, led the surgical transplant team in the 11-hour operation. The donor lungs arrived in a gray cooler, which was wheeled into the operating room.

After removing John’s diseased right lung, Dr. Murphy placed the donor lung into his chest and connected it to the airway and blood vessels.

As oxygen entered the lung, it slowly swelled and filled John’s chest opening.

‘An incredible thing’

As he recovered from surgery, John soon realized the difference it made to have two new lungs supplying oxygen to his body. The medical team asked him to take a deep breath, and he did exactly that—to his surprise.

But trusting those lungs didn’t come easily at first. For several days after surgery, he repeatedly asked, “What is my oxygen level?”

After three years of wearing a nasal cannula, he couldn’t believe he could survive without supplemental oxygen.

John gets emotional when he thinks about the donor and the grieving family who made possible his second chance.

“Words can’t express the gratitude I have for that person’s family,” he said. “Wow. It’s incredible.”

Vacation with family

Three months after his transplant, John and Toni drove their 32-foot travel trailer to Duke Creek Campground in Cedar Springs for a week-long vacation.

For the first time in years, he could set up the trailer without help.

That’s not all—at home, he cooked dinner, did dishes, took out the trash and cleaned the house.

“It’s just amazing. I feel like a human being,” he said. “I felt so helpless before. I couldn’t do anything at all. I was so out of breath.”

John and Toni’s kids joined them at the campground, bringing the grandkids—six little ones ranging in age from 6 months to 7 years.

They played cards. Enjoyed bonfires. Took walks.

“I was swimming in the pool,” John said. “I was never able to do that before.”

Taking care of his new lungs requires frequent checkups with his medical team and medication to prevent rejection and infections. His daily regimen includes 48 pills a day.

“It is exchanging one lifestyle for another,” Dr. Kumar said. “You are liberated from oxygen and able to do all the things you want to enjoy.

“And at the same time, there is a high level of vigilance, especially in the first year.”

And John takes on the responsibility with the same determination he showed preparing for the transplant, Dr. Kumar said.

“He takes good care of the lungs. He’s a very good patient,” he said. “He takes his medications. He asks great questions. We are very proud of him.”

For John, the gift of new life means the future looks brighter than it has in a long time.

“Through my God, I know it’s more of a reality that Toni and I will grow old together, just like we promised each other,” he said.

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