Lessons From Living With a Lung Transplant - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Lessons From Living With a Lung Transplant
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Although I disclosed in my last article in The American Spectator that I had a serious health matter pulling me away from writing regularly — in the meantime, temporarily, just for a limited time only — I chose then not to elaborate. TMI.

Since then, I have come to see that my health situation can be leveraged to guide others. To cut to the chase, I now am the recipient of an organ donor’s lung. If not for that, I now would be dead, and no one would be left to formulate puns as I do.

Back in 2014, eight years ago, I noticed while lecturing at law school that I was more inclined to cough when I took deeper breaths. So I took fewer deep breaths. Duh. But over time, the breaths became even less deep, and I went to a lung doctor, a pulmonologist. He was very highly regarded and affiliated with an excellent hospital in Los Angeles. But he made jokes and short shrift of my perception that something was not right. After viewing my CT scan, he said, “It’s nothing, just some schmutz (dirt) in your lungs.”

The joker was wrong, and I felt it. I knew he was wrong. Something was not right. Eventually, a more serious and much wiser pulmonologist diagnosed my condition correctly: interstitial lung disease. My lungs were not processing oxygen as effectively as healthy lungs do. By volume, dry air is 78.09 percent nitrogen, 20.95 percent oxygen, 0.93 percent argon, 0.04 percent carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases. If you process just a little bit less oxygen than you should — e.g., a saturation of 80 percent instead of 87 percent and preferably over 90 percent — your brain will be affected, and you soon will die.

To deal with my developing illness, I eventually bought one of those oxygen concentrators you see advertised on TV, the Inogen One. It pumps pure oxygen into you via cannula, that nursing home thing that goes into the nostrils. I bought their main model with five settings, and I began minimally with one liter. As my condition worsened over time, I increased the setting to two liters, then to three, and eventually to the maximum five. That was great, but it was no cure. My condition continued worsening, as expected.

By a year ago, my pulmonologist started sharing with me the bad news that I needed to start thinking about a lung transplant. The problem with that, besides the obvious, is that half of people with transplanted lungs make it fewer than six years. Although 93 percent of recipients make it one year with a new lung, the body’s own defenses — the antibodies that attack foreign infections like viruses and bacterial infections — also attack transplanted organs, thinking they are foreign, dangerous invasions. Heavy medications are prescribed, including CellCept (mycophenolate mofetil) and Prograf, to overcome and reduce the protective antibodies and thus prevent or reduce the chances of organ rejection. That treatment, however, also leaves the body markedly weakened in fighting off regular viruses and other infections. For example, it is believed that Colin Powell died of COVID, despite his having worn a mask and having received all prescribed immunizations, because he was on such medications that left him immunocompromised.

By January of this year, it was time for me to explore lung transplantation. It no longer could be avoided. But there was a major COVID outbreak in Los Angeles, and I wanted to avoid going to any hospitals; their morgues were overcrowded. Thanks, Chinese communism. As the surge attenuated in March, I scheduled meetings at three hospitals to meet with their respective lung transplant teams, so I could decide whether the time had come to transplant and which place would be best for me.

On March 21, I went to my first appointment. I met with their expanded lung transplant team. After they examined me and described their program, the director told me, “We are not a prison, and I cannot lock you up here against your will, but if you don’t check yourself in right now, I cannot assure you that you will wake up tomorrow.”

Point taken.

I checked in that day and would not come back home until four months later on July 20. Inasmuch as the hospital did not allow haircutters in because of the pandemic, I went four months without a haircut, leaving me looking like the caveman in the GEICO commercials. I never got to the other two appointments and never got to choose. Rather, it was a variation on Patrick Henry: “Give me a lung, or give me death.”

I was not yet “out of the woods.” They do not do lung transplants for people dying of lung disease unless you “qualify.” With a shortage of available lungs for transplant — and other practicalities — they will not, for example, implant a new lung into someone otherwise dying of terminal cancer or too weak to withstand the procedure and its aftermath. So I had to “qualify” by passing certain physical tests of basic strength. Sort of Festivus without the pole and insults. Unfortunately, my years of reduced lung capacity and oxygen saturation, compounded by my not going to the gym as COVID emerged into a full-blown pandemic, had left me seriously unconditioned. The hospital’s physical therapist was not helping me meaningfully improve, and I would not receive the transplant if I did not get reconditioned, so my wife Denise found me a personal trainer who cost a small fortune to come to the hospital three times a week. He was great, and he got me into something approximating decent enough condition to qualify as a lung transplant recipient. That process took more than a month.

The lung transplant team believed in my determination to meet their qualifying standards, so they authorized my continued stay in the hospital while I worked to qualify. Along the way, there were CT scans, X-rays, and MRIs — whatever they got. One exam suggested my diaphragm was not working, which would disqualify me. On an alternative test days later, they found good life in the diaphragm. Thank G-d. There were other concerns that arose amid the plethora of tests they put me through, but one by one, G-d blessed me miraculously with positive results — or I should say “negative results” — and I qualified.

Next, we had to wait for a suitable lung. Not every lung will do for every patient. For example, a small person cannot receive a big lung, nor a big patient a small lung. And I had refused any lung donated by a smoker. There is a national lung transplant waiting list. The United Network for Organ Sharing manages the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. This computerized list includes all the information doctors need about everyone who is waiting for donated lungs. Because I was in a hospital, not “just” waiting at home, and met other criteria, I was higher urgency on the waiting list, top tier. Miraculously, my new lung showed up only 10 days after I qualified to receive one. Some qualifying candidates have to wait months. Some die while waiting. I got my lung transplant on May 20 — two months from the day I was admitted to the hospital.

I learned to truly hate hospital beds. And, restricted by my own religious beliefs and practices to a strictly kosher diet, I came to get sick of the same boring food choices each meal. They cooked the flavor and moisture out of the salmon, the brisket, everything. It all had the texture of fine leather. But at least I was alive.

In many cases like mine, they transplant only one lung, leaving one of the diseased other lungs in the recipient. That way, they can transplant two patients from one donor. They say the diseased lung does not spread its illness into the new healthy lung, and you need only one lung to thrive.

Alas, during my surgery, one of my two vocal cords got paralyzed, leaving me with virtually no voice. That sent me for special treatment by a uniquely skilled otolaryngologist who ultimately injected a special filler into my paralyzed vocal cord, miraculously restoring my voice. I now am undergoing therapy with a speech-language pathologist to restore my voice’s resonance and strength, and I just delivered three sermons to my congregation on Rosh Hashanah eve and each of the two mornings of Rosh Hashanah.

They found a mycobacterium in my old diseased lung and put me on an antibiotic from hell called “amikacin.” That medication left me half deaf, so I found an audiologist who fitted me with hearing aids. My hearing had been fine before, but now I need hearing aids like my grandfather’s. Thank G-d, I can mostly hear again, and TV closed captioning helps a bunch. I don’t need the little sign language person in the small circle on the top of the TV screen or the Nelson Mandela clown. And then there has been rehab: learning to walk unassisted again, to climb stairs, to amble around without thinking about it.

I now live on a ticking timetable. No one can predict how long a body will accept an implanted foreign object, but the situation still is better than being poked in the eye with a screwdriver or being dead. For me, I now am on borrowed time, enabled to serve G-d longer, fulfill more Torah commandments, help people with my pastoral services, teach Torah again, and role model. I can watch Aaron Judge pursue Babe Ruth, Roger Maris, and three cheaters who used steroids illegally. To watch Albert Pujols hit No. 700. I can dream of a “Subway Series” or at least of Mets in the postseason. I can live to see Nancy Pelosi booted off her perch, the gavel stripped from her hands. I even have a ream of paper ready to rip when she gets ousted as the GOP takes back the House in a few weeks.

And I can write again.

I don’t need vocal cords to write, nor hearing aids. Those are bonuses. Living is a bonus. I no longer need my Inogen One oxygen concentrator. Along the way, I have learned to appreciate the 21 percent oxygen in the air as I never did before with each and every breath I take. I have learned how truly special a voice is, and how it is a gift from G-d to be used for righteousness (to encourage people, to compliment, to pray, to inspire, to teach, and to express love) and not for evil (gossip-mongering, stirring up hate wantonly, insulting others, downplaying good with cynicism, or just plain prattling on endlessly about nonsense). I have learned to appreciate G-d’s great gift of hearing: “Hear O Israel. The L-rd is our G-d. The L-rd is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). To avoid listening to gossip or evil talk and instead listening to Torah classes online, Michael Kay yelling “There it goes. See ya!,” Gary Cohen exclaiming, “Back towards the wall. Forget that. It’s outta here!!” when a home run is hit by the good guys, and inspirational songs ranging from those of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Safam to Garth Brooks (“Some of G-d’s Greatest Gifts Are Unanswered Prayers,” “The Dance,” “The River,” “If Tomorrow Never Comes”).

I have learned to appreciate every moment of life as I never have before — and I always have loved my life. To appreciate oxygen.

To appreciate Melissa, Wlady, Hannah, Ellie, and the whole team at The American Spectator for opening its “pages” to me, allowing me to share my “voice” with so many thousands of my readers. To appreciate my readers here and my congregants who give my life so much more meaning than I ever could give them. And to appreciate my professional colleagues, dearest friends, kids, and wife. We all should be prepared to love good and to hate evil if tomorrow never comes.

Dov Fischer
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Rabbi Dov Fischer, Esq., is Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values (comprising over 2,000 Orthodox rabbis), was adjunct professor of law at two prominent Southern California law schools for nearly 20 years, and is Rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County, California. He was Chief Articles Editor of UCLA Law Review and clerked for the Hon. Danny J. Boggs in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit before practicing complex civil litigation for a decade at three of America’s most prominent law firms: Jones Day, Akin Gump, and Baker & Hostetler. He likewise has held leadership roles in several national Jewish organizations, including Zionist Organization of America, Rabbinical Council of America, and regional boards of the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation. His writings have appeared in Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Federalist, National Review, the Jerusalem Post, and Israel Hayom. A winner of an American Jurisprudence Award in Professional Legal Ethics, Rabbi Fischer also is the author of two books, including General Sharon’s War Against Time Magazine, which covered the Israeli General’s 1980s landmark libel suit. Other writings are collected at www.rabbidov.com.
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