MUNSTER | It was a typical day in the region when Rick Smeberg pulled to the intersection of Indianapolis Boulevard and Ridge Road.
The weather was nice. The car windows were down. Deeply, he breathed in and out. He thought, "Damn, am I lucky."
After years being tethered to an oxygen tank, Smeberg could finally breathe on his own, using lungs that were not his own.
The scar that crosses his chest like a set of railroad tracks is a reminder of his old life, before he was a double-lung transplant recipient.
Nearly five years after the transplant, the now 66-year-old Highland man spends his days babysitting his granddaughters, 2-year-old Kara and Audra, who will turn 1 on Jan. 3.
"I'm glad I still have my dad," his daughter Jill Boganwright said. "I'm glad he's able to see my kids grow up. They call him Papa. I'm glad they have their papa."
Smeberg's health problems started 18 years ago with a bout of pneumonia. He took a week off from his job as a heavy equipment operator and returned before he was well enough. His health worsened and he fell into respiratory failure, landing him in the emergency room.
"I left the hospital with an oxygen tank," he said.
And, he left with a diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, commonly known as COPD.
His daughter didn't realize how bad it was until he walked her down the aisle at her wedding, dragging along an oxygen tank.
"He never really let on how bad it was," she said.
His local pulmonary specialist, Dr. Don Dumont, suggested Smeberg seek out lung-transplant specialists at Loyola University Medical Center.
The doctors at Loyola put him through numerous tests to gauge his health. He had an EKG, angiogram, colonoscopy and more. He passed their tests and sat on a waiting list for three or four years.
One July 4, news of available lungs had him heading for the hospital, but it was a false alarm. On March 15, 2008, the call came again. This time, it was real.
Within minutes, he was wheeled into an operating room and received new lungs. Smeberg doesn't know much about his donor.
"All I know is it was a young, healthy, disease-free person," he said.
Lung transplants are rare
Dr. Daniel Dilling, a lung-transplant pulmonologist at Loyola Medical Center and associate professor of medicine at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine, said only about 120 hospitals in the world perform lung transplants. Loyola does 20 to 40 a year.
"We're one of the bigger programs in the country at that level," he said.
Common reasons include pulmonary fibrosis and COPD, emphysema and cystic fibrosis.
Procurement organizations, such as Gift of Hope, help identify available organs and tissues. Blood type, gender, height and cause of death are some of the factors that determine compatibility.
Smeberg's upcoming five-year survival mark is a milestone, Dilling said.
"Only 55 percent of people are still alive at the five-year mark," he said.
Smeberg takes nearly 40 pills a day and has more doctor visits and blood tests than an average person, but he is free from his oxygen tank.
"I was, like, on an umbilical cord," he said. "Now there's no limitations."
There are a few. Doctors told him to avoid sick people and crowds, because of the germs. He can't share food or drinks after someone has taken a bite or sip, which means turning down offers from his granddaughters to share their snacks.
Dilling said Smeberg is doing well for a double-lung transplant recipient.
"He's above the curve," he said. "He has a more robust and better outcome than other people would at his age."
Smeberg has advice for those on a transplant waiting list.
"Don't give up," he said. "Stay active. Don't sit and wait."
His daughter, holding the pig-tailed Audra, chimed in, "You never know what there is to look forward to."