Ken Thompson (seated) poses with other lung transplant recipients:
Front: Al Jack, Merv Sheppard, Kellie Cooper, Judy Penner, Kim Cassar, Ken Thompson, Bob Webster
Back: Ralf Quast, Grant Hagerty, Avril Koyanagi
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Ken Thompson sits in a recliner chair in the living room of his Alliston home. He is covered with a blanket, and has difficulty moving. At times he has difficulty breathing. Surrounded by family, he listens closely as they recount his story. It's one he barely remembers, but one that doctors have called a miracle.
"They called him their miracle man, because they really didn't think he'd pull through," said Ken's wife, Ann.
It started in 2005, when Thompson went to his doctor because he had trouble breathing.
"I couldn't breath properly," he said. "I needed more air."
That year he was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that destroys the lungs' ability to transfer oxygen to the blood stream. Since his diagnosis, Thompson and his family have been on an emotional rollercoaster ride that included a state-of-the-art piece of technology that kept him alive just long enough for a lung transplant.
"There were three times that (doctors) said, 'he won't make it, say your goodbyes'," said his 18-year-old daughter, Kayla.
After Thompson was diagnosed, he was put on oxygen to help him breath. He was able to live at home, but had to be hooked up to oxygen tanks at night.
In 2006, his condition worsened. By December of that year he could no longer work at his job at Borden Metals. Doctors increased his medication, and his family starting inquiring about getting Thompson on a list for a lung transplant, said Ann.
While family members were looking into the transplant list, Thompson's condition deteriorated and by late April of 2007 his family rushed him to Stevenson Memorial Hospital. A day later, doctors there sent him to Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie. Kayla said she was warned he might not survive the trip. The family braced for the worst.
Thompson did make it to Barrie, but after a weeklong stay his condition deteriorated further and he was sent to Toronto General Hospital.
After a series of rigorous tests, Thompson was identified as a candidate for a transplant and was added to the long list of people awaiting donors May 17.
With Thompson's lungs failing fast, and the outlook for a donor unknown, on May 24 Thompson was put on a new technology known as a Novalung.
The German-made machine is hooked up to both of the patient's legs. Blood is pumped from one leg and into a machine that removes the carbon dioxide, and re-oxygenates the blood, before it goes back into the body through the other leg. The machine essentially temporarily replaces the patient's lungs when they fail.
Late on May 29, doctors said Thompson could only stay on the Novalung for another 12 hours, because of tissue damage to his legs, Ann said. Doctors would then have to disconnect it and let nature take its course. All the Thompson family and doctors could do was wait and see if a donor became available.
It was an excruciating wait, and one that's outcome was dependent on the tough decision of other families, said Ann.
"(The donor) has to be someone on life support," said Ann. "It's up to that family to say they're going to pull the plug."
Thompson's team of doctors cast a large net looking for lungs. At first the search was centered on Toronto, but eventually it opened up to across North America, Ann said.
Then, with little time remaining, the Thompsons received the news they had been waiting for - lungs were available, and they were from a patient in Toronto. Ann was asleep at the time, and she was woken up by two of Ken's sisters.
"They said, 'he has won the lottery. He's got lungs, he's got lungs coming," recalls Ann.
Preparation for the transplant began immediately. After what was about a six-hour surgery, Thompson had a new set of lungs. By the time doctors were able to take Thompson off of the Novalung, he had gone over the 12-hour threshold by 15 minutes. Doctors tried to repair the tissue damage from the machine, but Thompson has large holes and scars in his thighs, where the machine was hooked up.
Dr. Shaf Keshavjee is the director of the Toronto Lung Transplant Program, and he said the Novalung buys more time for people waiting for lung transplants. Unlike other artificial lungs, the Novalung does not require an artificial pump, and lets the patient's heart pump the blood. This means less damage to the body and fewer complications.
"Twenty per cent of the people that are listed for a lung transplant will die before they have an organ available for them," said Keshavjee. "So, for the few people that are candidates for this therapy, now you can put them on the Novalung and buy them some time until an organ becomes available."
For Thompson, his timing was lucky. He was one of the first people in Canada to go on the Novalung. Even now, two years later, the technology is rarely used in patients.
Keshavjee said Toronto General does about 100 lung transplants a year, and of those cases only about three or four go on the Novalung.
While the transplant saved his life, the whole ordeal continues to be a difficult one for Thompson and his family. He remembers little of his time in hospital, and his memory of things before the surgery has been hampered as well. He had a difficult time remembering Alliston when he returned, and didn't remember his house either.
"And I've lived in Alliston all my life too - 56 years," he said.
Since the transplant, there has been a series of medical hurdles Thompson has had to jump. He has had several medical complications, many of which Ann said likely stem from the cocktail of drugs Thompson has to take daily.
For example, every Monday morning he wakes up and takes 27 pills, consisting of both drugs and vitamins. He'll take over a dozen more before bed.
He has suffered seizures and fallen down. He had a throat stent because of tissue damage caused by intubation. He has also had difficulty walking, because of the damage to his legs caused when he was hooked up to the Novalung.
Despite the ups and downs, Thompson said he has received excellent support from his family and friends. His wife, Ann, has refused to give up, or let Thompson give up.
"It's been one hell of a rollercoaster ride, but if we ever had to do it again, we certainly would," she said.
Thompson has been improving, but he and his family have learned that progress is made with small steps. He has a physiotherapist come in to help him walk again, and Ann said she is determined to have him walking again by the spring. He had made some strides, and last summer was able to achieve one of his goals. He had regained some of his motor abilities, and was able to mow his lawn with a riding mower, a time he looks back on fondly and proudly.
But Thompson was admitted to hospital again this January, and after a month-long stay, he has had to start over once again.
The father of two's biggest goal is learning to walk, and thankfully he has a major motivation to accomplish it - his daughters, Kayla and Kendal.
"My dad and I are best friends. He's my life," said Kayla. "He's my miracle."
Kayla still lives at home, and she and her fiancé, Max Kueper, help with Thompson's recovery. While the help and support from his family is greatly appreciated, his daughter's engagement especially has given Thompson all the motivation he needs.
"I have to walk my daughter down the aisle," he said.
Merv's note: For more info and a video about the Novalung device see my recent post about 16-year-old Katie Sutherland who's life was also saved by the Novalung
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