Saturday, September 12, 2009

Longest lung transplant survivor at Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital doing well

Adam Kingz wasn't like other teens. He didn't whine about little things, he was just so pleased to be here


Smithville, Ontario
Adam Kingz is the longest living lung transplant survivor from Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital.

He's made it 10 years since that terrifying and hopeful day he got a new set of lungs on Aug. 23, 1999.

It's so rare, the 14-year-old from Smithville was only the third child Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children had ever performed a lung transplant on since the program began in 1995.

The other two have since died.

"Adam's beat the odds," said Dr. Melinda Solomon, a director in Sick Kids respiratory medicine program.

Equally impressive is that he's healthy. The 24-year-old artist lives a pretty typical life other than the osteoporosis he's developed from the drugs he must take for the rest of his life to make sure his body doesn't reject the lungs.

"He's done well," said Solomon. "A lot of people survive things but it doesn't mean they get to do everything. He has."

It's a list of ordinary milestones and moments that most would take for granted. But for Kingz each is winning a battle against the odds.

"I've always proved the doctors wrong in some way," he said listing off all the dire statistics he's been quoted over the years. "It's just something for me to beat."

Ask him about each year since the transplant and he'll tell you what personal mountain he climbed.

Year 1 he walked. He walked around his hospital room, his ward, Sick Kids, his house and eventually his neighborhood.

Until then, the primary pulmonary hypertension that was killing him left him feeling winded all the time. It's a rare blood vessel disorder of the lungs that puts so much stress on the heart it eventually fails. In the hospital, he could barely go the few steps from his bed to the bathroom. Anywhere farther required a wheelchair and a chaperone -- tough for a teen wanting independence.

The transplant gave him freedom along with life.

"I just walked," he said. "I took the stairs. I would run a bit to make myself tired and catch my breath and it would go away and I could breathe again."

Year 2 he went back to school. For the first time in three years, he could go to class like every other Grade 10 student and not have illness as an excuse for his performance. Some kids in the high school didn't even know he'd ever been sick.

He especially loved being in the middle of that "two minutes before class when the hallway is busy and hustling."

For so long, he'd had to avoid crowds for fear he'd catch some minor bug that could be deadly for him. Now, he went to the movies with his friends and had his first dates.

"I had a normal teenage life again," he said.

Except for one big difference. Kingz' attitude wasn't like most kids his age.

"I was happy to be alive," he said. "I didn't let normal things in a teen's life get to me because to me they weren't a big deal. I wasn't upset if someone didn't talk to me or if a teacher did something. I was very positive about life."

It was during Year 3 that Kingz spent the first night away from home that wasn't in a hospital.

Fittingly, it was a visit to Toronto. For years, he'd lived at Sick Kids as much if not more than home. But he'd never really seen the city itself.

Now, he was in Toronto performing a play with fellow students at a festival.

"It was like a whole other side of Toronto," he said. "I associated Toronto with being sick. But my friends and I walked around and went to shops. It was cool."

Year 4 he almost lost it all.

Kingz came as close to death as he has ever been when he caught the flu and it turned into pneumonia almost overnight in December 2002.

It was the first time, in all of the years he was sick, that an ambulance rushed him from his Smithville home lights and sirens blaring to Sick Kids in Toronto.

"They told me he was the sickest kid in Sick Kids at that moment," said his mom Arlene Vandervelde.

Doctors prepared her for the worst and said even if he got better, it would be a long recovery with no chance of going home before New Year's.

"I went home Christmas Eve," said Adam with a chuckle.

Year 5, he fell in love.

He met Teisha Sabourin while peer tutoring her class to make up for school he'd missed while sick with pneumonia.

"She had a big crush on me and I was totally clueless," admits Kingz.

A mutual friend finally urged him to ask her out. Their first date was on a Friday the 13th.

Neither of them had their driver's licence so her mom drove them to the mall. They ate in the food court and went to see a movie.

"It wasn't romantic, but how many first dates are in high school?" he says laughing at himself. "I was happy with her and things just kept going until we were that couple in school that everyone knew would end up together."

Kingz only worry was that Sabourin didn't know he was a transplant survivor.

"We were out boating with her dad and I took my shirt off and she saw the scar," he said. "I was nervous but she made herself clear that it didn't matter."

Triumphant Year 6 saw Kingz officially beat the odds by living more than five years past his transplant and graduated high school.

"None of us ever pictured me graduating high school," he says about family and friends who remember the sad graduation that had come before.

In his Grade 8 picture, the oxygen tubes helping to keep him alive are as visible as his gown and diploma. He'd barely been to his last year of school and it didn't feel like there was much to celebrate.

"With high school, it felt like the real thing," says Kingz.

Year 7 Kingz got a brand new start.

His family moved to a house he loved.

"I was sick in that other house," he said. "This was a fresh start for everything. I cut the lawn here, helped with the garden and shovelled the snow."

Kingz started designing tattoos. First, an angel for his mom and then another for himself. The family has always felt a guardian angel was out there somewhere watching out for them.

Now he has a list of friends waiting for him to design something for them.

"It's a way to express myself."

By Year 8, Kingz knew what he wanted most in life so he asked Sabourin to marry him.

"I wanted to be with her," he said. "I wanted to tell her I love her."

After asking her family's approval first, he took her to Niagara Falls just after Christmas 2006.

They walked by the falls, had their hands waxed together on Clifton Hill and got engaged.

"She cried and got all giggly and called her mom," he said.

Kingz admits they were young. He was 22 and Sabourin only 20. But they were ready and Kingz didn't want to waste time.

"If I want to do something, I just do it," he says. "I don't wait. I want to live for today."

Year 9, Kingz got brave enough to leave the country. For the first time, he was a plane ride away from a Canadian hospital. He spent a week in Cuba with Sabourin.

"We went to the beach and Teisha got really badly burned," he said. "Everything was so much fun."

Today is the sweetest milestone of them all. Kingz is getting married to Sabourin this afternoon, just weeks after celebrating Year 10.

Sick Kids doesn't even have odds on surviving to Year 10 because so few children have done it so far. The Guinness Book of World Records lists 16 years, 307 days as the longest surviving single lung transplant recipient. But that was an adult and Kingz had a double lung transplant.

Kingz plans to beat them all.

"I've always wanted to live a long life," he says. "I want to live long enough to break records just for being alive."

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