At this years’ New York City Marathon, double-lung-transplant recipient Timothy [Tim] Sweeney triumphantly crossed the finish line with 43,000 runners and his surgeon, Joshua Robert Sonett, MD.
Sweeney, a 33-year old Connecticut fitness expert and personal trainer, had managed to keep the debilitating symptoms usually associated with cystic fibrosis, a progressive and frequently fatal genetic disease at bay for years with his healthy lifestyle of regular exercise and good nutrition.
“I had dedicated my life to being as healthy as possible,” Sweeney says, “and decided to be a personal trainer to help people get into great shape and stay healthy.”
After years of pushing his lungs to their limit, Tim’s lungs finally began to fail, dropping to 20 per cent of capacity. He was at the limits of his body’s capacity to get oxygen and he was fighting for every breath.
Finally, in 2008, just after Tim and his wife Beth gave birth to their first child, his pulmonologist delivered the devastating news that without a double-lung transplant, he would have less than a year to live. The news came as a shock to his wife, who remembers collapsing on the floor upon hearing the news.
He could no longer even walk across the room, nor did he have the strength to lift his baby boy. Near the end when Tim desperately needed new lungs, he was called to the hospital three times but on all three occasions, the donor lungs turned out to be defective.
Lungs being the precious organs that they are often get injured when patients die—they get injured by trauma, injured by infection, or injured just by the act of death. The body degenerates, and the lungs are the first to go, so a donor that might have had good lungs 24 hours before his death, all of a sudden has lungs that turn out to be unacceptable.
“When we sent him home the third time, we did not think he would ever have the strength to return,” remembers Sonett.
However, just as Tim was leaving the hospital and was waiting downstairs for his transport home, he received his final call to come back upstairs. Because of the generosity of an organ donor and the donor family, Timothy Sweeney would get new lungs.
On November 10, 2009, Joshua Sonett*, MD, Surgical Director of the Lung Transplant Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, performed the double-lung transplant that saved Tim’s life. “Without that transplant, he likely would have had just weeks to live,” says Sonett.
Few hours after his surgery, Sonett, who had just completed his fourth Marathon in New York, invited Tim to begin training and join him in the 2010 New York Marathon. “I gave Tim the challenge just hours after the transplant. He perked up and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll run the Marathon with you’,” remembers the surgeon.
Sonett himself has run four marathons, and says he’s lost sight of the first-time accomplishment. But for anybody running 26.2 miles, a full marathon, it is an amazing personal accomplishment, and of course, most marathon runners are in reasonably good health.
“A year ago, Tim was in a hospital, on oxygen, unable to walk across the room, and we feared that if we did not get him his lungs soon, he was going into hospice care. Tim went from being a young man on the edge of the abyss to recovering and running 26.2 miles in just one year,” says Sonett.
Tim was intent on keeping his body maximally tuned for his entire life, with good nutrition, exercise, and hence, was able to carry his body past the problems usually associated with cystic fibrosis, for quite a few years. This is partially why Tim had a very fast recovery, and was released from the hospital just six days after the operation.
“Not many patients suffering from cystic fibrosis can keep their body reasonably fit around failing lungs. In fact, I can guarantee you that if Tim was not active, he might have needed his transplant 10 years ago,” says Sonett. This speedy release is a testimony to his healthy lifestyle before and after his transplant and should be an example to us all.
When Sonett and Tim triumphantly crossed the New York Marathon finish line on November 7, 2010, they were running to raise awareness for Covenant House, a charity for homeless youth, and also to raise awareness of the critical shortage of donor organs.
Outlining the benefits of organ donation, Sonett says that a needy person like Tim can get new lungs, and the donor’s family can take solace knowing that part of their loved one is living on.”If Tim had not received his lungs when he did, he would never have lived to run the New York Marathon, never would have lived to help raise his little boy, and would never have lived to be the inspiration he is to many like him suffering with cystic fibrosis.
Just imagine, if Tim’s donor family had not decided to make the ultimate gift of life, the lungs that carried Tim across the finish line at the New York Marathon, might have been buried forever with his organ donor,” concludes Sonett.
Gift someone life
Imagine Tim’s miraculous story, multiplied around the world, saving lives of many in need through the loving and humanitarian gift of organ donation!
Right now, anywhere from 20 – 30 per cent of patients around the globe like Tim, die waiting for lung transplants. There are just not enough organ donations to meet the need of patients who require a lung transplant.
Many families who have suffered the loss of a loved one who became an organ donor, say that knowing their loved one helped save a life, is a great source of comfort and helps them cope with their loss. Get the facts on organ donation, and make an informed decision based on truth rather than myth.
Organ donation is the ultimate humanitarian act of charity and generosity, and is supported by most major religions. Organ donation, as in the case of Tim Sweeney, may be the one chance an individual will have in this world, to save the life of another.
As told by Dr Joshua Sonett to Donna McLaughlin Wyant
*Joshua R Sonett, MD, is particularly recognised for successfully treating former American President Bill Clinton in 2005 for a complication that developed in his lungs after a bypass surgery that was performed on him in 2004.