When Pat Meaney and Randy Wilgus met last month, for the first time, both were breathing with other people's lungs.
The Northwest Indiana men were in Chicago to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Northwest Medicine's lung transplant program. Meaney, of LaPorte, was one of the first recipients, while Wilgus, of Valparaiso, was one of the newest.
"Prior to the transplant, I could walk probably a quarter of a city block, at which time I would have to stop and crank up the oxygen," said Meaney, 67, a retired business owner. "Now I can walk miles. I'm able to play with my grandchildren, play tag, and take them places ... go to the park and keep up with them. I wasn't really able to do that before. That's been a huge benefit."
"That fact that you have somebody else's parts inside you — it's because of them you're alive," said Wilgus, 61, a retired warehouse manager. "It's just a thrill. It's changed my life."
Northwestern started its program in September 2014, and now does about 10 to 20 lung transplants a year (Northwest Indiana does not have any transplant hospitals).
"Everybody talks about cancer and cardiac deaths. But lung disease — both acute failure and chronic failure — is a very common cause of death and disability in our community," said Dr. Ankit Bharat, surgical director of the lung transplant program at Northwestern Medicine. "That's not really recognized."
He said that even many doctors don't realize that donor lungs could solve their patients' ills. He noted that less than 2,000 lung transplants are performed in the United States every year, significantly less than for organs like kidneys and hearts.
"I wish — and I'm quite confident — that as people recognize that lung transplants and surgical treatments for advanced lung disease really make a difference, the field is going to continue to grow, and we're going to help patients who have end-stage lung disease and don't know this is an option," he said.
Wilgus and Meaney are glad they discovered transplants were possibilities for them.
Wilgus, for one, believes there was some kind of divine intervention involved. He titled his speech at the Northwestern anniversary celebration, "It Was Meant to Be."
Three years ago, his sister-in-law was having a bake sale in front of her house to raise money for a walk dedicated to pulmonary fibrosis, the lung disease that killed her husband, Wilgus' brother.
"And this lady who works at Northwestern was going to work early in the morning and happened to see, through the sun shining in her eyes, this tent. And she stopped and said, 'What is this about?'" Wilgus recalled.
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"My sister-in-law said, 'My husband had pulmonary fibrosis.' And the woman said, 'I'm going to work. I'm a therapist at the hospital. I give testings for that disease.' It's a small world. They got together and started a support group to help people with the disease."
When Wilgus also was diagnosed with the genetic condition a couple of years later, he reached out to his sister-in-law, who contacted the woman from Northwestern.
She got him in to see a specialist, who told Wilgus he had about a month to live.
The doctors also noticed he had a heart condition they had to treat first but decided to proceed with the transplant, even though it was risky. He got his new lungs April 12.
"It's a God thing this lady stopped," said Wilgus, a married father of five, grandfather of eight and soon-to-be great-grandfather. "I don't know where else I would have gone if they hadn't taken that chance."
Now he mentors other patients going through the surgery, including two from the Region recently.
"I counsel them, but not from a professional standpoint," he said. "Doctors do their thing, and psychiatrists do their thing. I don't have a medical license. I do have a license called a scar."
Meaney, meanwhile, had been on oxygen for seven years before his doctors decided he should try for a transplant. A genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, combined with the fact he had been a smoker in early adulthood, had caused his lung problems. He was at the point where physical activity had become "almost fruitless," he recalled.
A series of testing revealed he was a candidate for the operation.
"Otherwise my life would have just been sitting on a couch and watching TV and relying on other people," said Meaney, who is married with two sons, two grandchildren and four great-grandkids.
He got the lung transplant in November 2014. He called it "an honor" when he later met the family of his donor, a 47-year-old man who died of a brain aneurysm. He still exchanges Christmas cards with them.
"There are troubles with it. It's not all rosy," he said of the transplant. "You take a lot of medication that does some strange things to your body. All things considered and the fact that I made it to the five-year mark, I'll put up with bumps in the road. They're nothing compared to what I was facing before."