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It had been years since avid golfer Curtis Watkins was able to play a round of his favorite sport. He still got to spend time out on the course, but he was stuck in the cart, driving his wife Linda from shot to shot. The exertion required to swing a club was just too much.
A heavy smoker for 40 years, Curtis finally managed to quit in 2001 at age 58 thanks to Linda’s encouragement, his own determination, and a generous supply of nicotine gum and patches.
“But it caught up with me,” said Curtis, who had developed chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) from his smoking. Within four or five years of quitting cigarettes began to experience symptoms of shortness of breath, cough and fatigue. He was diagnosed with emphysema, a form of COPD, and ended up needing an oxygen tank. Behind the wheel of a golf cart, Curtis was so close to being able to tee up a ball and yet so far away.
By his late 60s, he had developed end-stage lung disease and his condition was worsening.
“I hit rock bottom,” said Curtis, who by that point had been on an oxygen tank for a decade. “I could hardly breathe.”
But there was hope.
“I found out that the Lung Transplant Program at University of Utah Health doesn’t have an age limit,” said Curtis, who met with Transplant Pulmonologist Sanjeev Raman, MD, to learn if he was eligible for this life-saving operation that can be utilized when all other forms of treatment have been exhausted.
“When we did our pre-transplant evaluation, we found out that — outside of his lung disease — Mr. Watkins was in generally good health,” said Raman, noting that transplant is a complex medical-surgical treatment and a multidisciplinary decision involving the input of many professionals including transplant nurse coordinators, physicians, surgeons, pharmacists, nutritionists, social workers and exercise rehabilitation specialists. It takes into consideration many factors including physical and emotional health, body weight, and whether the patient has a strong support system.
"Curtis didn’t have any obvious problems; he had a healthy heart; and he had good support from his wife so we determined he was a good fit for transplant,” said Raman.
Lung transplantation is performed in people with advanced stages of various lung diseases including COPD, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), cystic fibrosis, pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), sarcoidosis, and other rare lung diseases like lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) and pulmonary Langerhans cell histiocytosis (PLCH). It is not performed in patients who have active cancers like lung cancer.
Patients are required to understand the complexities of the procedure and post-surgical care, and should be able to adhere to a complex regimen of medications, clinic visits, and procedures for the remainder of their life following the transplant. They should also have quit smoking, are prohibited from drinking alcohol, and should not be using illicit or recreational drugs, including marijuana, at the time they are referred to the transplant center.
While an absolute upper age-limit for lung transplantation does not exist, the effects of the procedure and the prolonged medication regimen are potentially more risky in individuals older than 65.
“Ultimately, any decision regarding transplant has to be personalized for each patient,” Raman said.
While the average time on the wait-list for lung transplant at the University of Utah is about three months, Curtis had his lung transplant in September 2014, approximately nine months after he was listed. Following his recovery from the operation, everything was different. He no longer needed an oxygen tank, and he was free to play golf. Today, at age 75, Curtis plays three times a week.
“I’d play even more if it weren’t so expensive,” he said.
In August, Curtis will have the opportunity to put his golf skills to the test when he participates as an athlete in the Donate Life Transplant Games. The international event will be held in Salt Lake City from August 2-7. The Opening Ceremony, which is set for August 3 at Smith’s Ballpark, is free to the public. The games are an inspiring, one-of-a-kind event in which transplant recipients and donors compete in a wide range of sports, and the families of deceased donors are honored.
“It’s one of those things that you can’t really describe unless you’ve been there,” said Michelle McCardell, Executive Director of the Salt Lake City Organization Committee that is planning and overseeing the event. “Every single person has a story to tell. It’s kind of amazing.”
Raman is eager to attend the Transplant Games and is delighted that Curtis is among the athletes. He said the positive effects his patients experience after receiving a lung transplant never cease to amaze him.
“I’m just looking forward to meeting people and watching our transplant patients participate,” he said. “I’m thrilled to see that people who have been saved from life-threatening diseases and who are faced with challenges time and time again still have the tenacity to compete.”
Linda, of course, will be there too, rooting for her husband. Curtis credits her with helping him survive the difficult weeks and months following his transplant surgery.
“If it weren’t for the caregivers, nobody would be able to do anything,” Curtis said. “I wouldn’t be here. She took care of me when I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere and cooked me three meals a day.”
Curtis said he hopes more people take advantage of the medical technology available today for treatment of end-stage lung disease.
“It’s been wonderful for me,” he said. “I see people with oxygen and I want to tell them ‘Go to the University of Utah. See about a transplant.’”
Transplant Games are August 2-7. Click here if you are interested in volunteering at this year’s games!