John Drexler was finally waking up, 3 1/2 days after his surgery. He could hear Maureen’s voice.
“It’s all over,” said his wife of 35 years. “You’ve been transplanted and everything’s good.”
When he went to sleep five days earlier, he had no real expectation the lungs would come through in just 24 hours. Last he knew, his doctors and wife were telling him he’d made the transplant list. He would wait. He was on a full face mask and ventilator. He was drowsy and he would talk about a DNR once more with his wife.
“I never got a sense that that was going to be our last conversation,” Drexler said Friday from his Rotterdam home, nearly a year after he received a healthy pair of lungs. His had been ruined by an advanced case of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
What happened to Drexler in barely two weeks in April 2011 was a rapid-fire succession of life-altering discoveries and reactions. He and his family to this day don’t know if he was just really lucky, or if he was granted four small miracles that allowed him to attend his son’s wedding and spend more time with his grandchildren.
He saw his doctor on April 14, his 55th birthday. It was his third visit for what he and his doctor no longer suspected to just be bronchitis. Drexler saw a pulmonologist.
Five days later, he was much worse. He was hospitalized. And three days later the diagnosis was confirmed and a heavy dose of reality fell like a ton of bricks. The IPF had been caught too late. The only thing standing between the otherwise healthy man and certain death was a double lung transplant.
By the time he was flown out of Schenectady to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, he was already on 100 percent oxygen.
One of the clinic’s hallmarks is its willingness to take challenging cases. And here was Drexler, a man who had unknowingly lived with this disease for years, was finally diagnosed and deemed a 93 out of 100 on a scale from “can wait for new lungs” to “my time is running out.”
“I was labeled emergent,” he said. “I was living on 10 percent of my own lungs and otherwise in reasonably good health. So they took a chance on me.”
That was the first miracle.
The first order of business: “Call your insurance company before you get your hopes up too much,” the doctors all said.
“Cleveland Clinic had to push them, too, and say, ‘We need a medical decision. We can’t wait a week to make a decision. We need a decision now,’” he said.
Drexler was approved, but now he faced a transportation problem. The air transport that had been approved couldn’t fly that day because of inclement weather. So the clinic got involved again, this time requesting approval to send its own all-weather aircraft from Cleveland to Schenectady and back to Cleveland.
Drexler was flown out Tuesday night at 8.
He was tested all day Wednesday. Was he otherwise healthy? What was his likelihood of survival with a transplant?
He went on the list Thursday night. Miracle two. Twenty-four hours later he would be the recipient of miracle three and not even know it.
Maureen Drexler recalled, “On Friday, almost 24 hours to when they listed him, the doctor came out and told me that they had lungs for him.”
She didn’t know who they were from or where they were from, but she knew someone had to die for her husband to get those lungs and that made her sad and then happy and then sad again. One year later, that flurry of emotions would settle into a calm of gratitude.
“The doctor had said that if we were going to receive lungs, these are the ones that we would want because these are perfect,” she said. “That to me was unbelievable, it was just unbelievable.”
Drexler was unconscious, still heavily sedated and unaware that he was being rolled into an operating room early Saturday morning for surgery. It was another three and a half days after his surgery that Drexler woke up.
“I woke up and had working lungs,” he smiled. Miracle four.
Nothing has been the same since. Because they’re one of the most exposed organs in the human body, lungs have a very high rejection rate.
The Drexlers have had a number of scares since the transplant. Two near-rejections, an infection, heavy doses of steroids, daily regimens of anti-virals and anti-fungals and a slew of vitamins and supplements.
Drexler doesn’t go outside without a blue face mask, and he won’t go near large numbers of people in close spaces. He can’t be around his grandkids when they have the sniffles and he was warned to stay inside his house with the windows closed whenever he even hears a lawn mower. He hasn’t gone back to his job at Bank of America in Kingston, but he thinks a lot about goal posts.
“Almost as soon as I woke up, we thought, ‘OK, this is going to be OK,’ ” he said. “There’s some longevity here. We’re going to get to six months and after we get to six months, we’re going to get to the year. My goal now is to live 20 more years at least.”
In the fall of 2011, Drexler received a letter from the family of the young man whose lungs were now expanding and contracting within his chest. They wanted to know what his life was like before and what his life was like afterwards. After the lungs.
It took him a few days to compose the letter.
“It allowed me to dance at my son’s wedding 11 weeks after transplant,” he said. “And it allowed me to be here at Christmastime when our son from Charlotte was here. I felt this tremendous obligation to learn what to do to be healthy for myself to live but also to allow this other person to live through me. That’s how I wrote it to the family. Your family member lives on, not through me but in me. I truly believe that.”
Now that he’s reached a year, the Drexlers are trying to put their whirlwind experience to important use. They want people to know how significant and life altering it can be to someone else for them to be an organ donor. New Yorkers can register as organ donors at www.donatelifeny.org.
“It’s so easy,” said Drexler, “and it means so much.”