For Tim Thomforde, the difference between life before and after his double lung transplant has been striking. Tim went from being in a wheelchair on oxygen for nine years to walking his dog at 14,000 feet on top of a mountain in Colorado following his transplant in August 2017.
"It was pretty amazing because when they pulled the tube out, I could take deep breaths," Tim says. "It was like waking up from a bad dream. It had been 12 years since I felt I could really breathe."
In 2008, at age 50, Tim was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which was the result of 30 years of smoking and the emphysema he developed because of it. COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that destroys the lungs' air sacs, causing obstructed airflow from the lungs. Symptoms include breathing difficulty, especially with activity, as well as coughing, mucus production and wheezing.
Tim remembers vividly celebrating his 50th birthday with family and friends, and then having oxygen tanks delivered to his farm in Luray, Kansas. "When I first got on oxygen, I felt pretty good again. But it held me back because I was always worried about my tank being empty," Tim says. "As time progressed, my breathing got worse. So many things would trigger me — the hot, humid air, any kind of perfume or dust. I was afraid to do many of the things I used to do. It changed my whole life."
Tim was referred to Mayo Clinic by his physician in Hays, Kansas, to begin discussions about a lung transplant. "His lung function was in the 15% to 20% normal range when I first met him in October 2008," says Mark Wylam, M.D., a pulmonologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
"I couldn't walk to the bathroom without getting short of breath," Tim says. "When I would try to cook breakfast, I had to get the pan out and go rest before I could make eggs and toast." Although Tim's quality of life was poor, he had to quit smoking and get as physically healthy as possible before he could be listed for a transplant.
"Getting a transplant is like climbing a mountain. You have to prepare and make changes in your diet and physical fitness to be able to do this, which is why early referral is critical," Dr. Wylam says. "Every day you're on the list is a day to get more fit, so the body is strong enough to undergo the transplant."
"I trust (Dr. Wylam) and know he has my best interest at heart."Tim Thomforde
Tim was put on the transplant list in July 2014, six months after he quit smoking. While he waited for a new set of lungs, Tim was on several medications and participated in pulmonary rehabilitation at Mayo to stay in shape. Because Tim's blood type is AB negative, finding a compatible donor was difficult.
"Organs are matched to your blood type, and only about 3% of the total population has AB blood," Dr. Wylam says. "That's why patients with this blood type tend to wait longer on the transplant list."
During the wait, Tim relied on his care team at Mayo. "Dr. Wylam is such a great guy. He's great at explaining things. He tells me what he's thinking. I trust him and know he has my best interest at heart," Tim says. "In 2016, I wanted to spend Thanksgiving on my farm with my family. But I was worried I might get the call that they'd found me a set of lungs. Dr. Wylam said he'd come and get me if the lungs came in."
On Aug. 12, 2017, Tim got the call he'd been waiting for. And on his 59th birthday, Tim received a new set of lungs during his transplant, performed by Mayo surgeon Richard Daly, M.D.
"From the day I woke up from my surgery until now, I have not required any supplemental oxygen. My oxygen saturation is between 97% and 100%, and my lung capacity has increased from under 1 liter to 5 liters," Tim says. "My near-death situation has turned into a new life, and the most thoughtful and heroic gift from my donor made this possible."
"I am eternally grateful for this kind act and for the care I received at Mayo Clinic."Tim Thomforde
In the two years since his transplant, Tim has done lots of traveling, and he's been able to enjoy getting back to the activities he loves.
"Just a few months after the transplant, I walked my dog to the peak of a 14,000-foot-tall mountain. I got to finally meet my 9-year-old grandson in California. I spent a week with my children and grandchildren at a lake cabin. That was the first time all my kids and grandkids were all together," Tim says. "Reading stories to my grandkids, making s'mores, and taking them fishing. That's how they're going to remember their grandpa — not the main who was hooked up to an oxygen tank all the time. I don't take any of this for granted."
"There's nothing like a lung transplant to rebirth an individual to full capacity. I enjoy being a lung transplant doctor because of that stark difference we can make in people's lives," Dr. Wylam says. "The transplant patient is completely liberated from their disease and able to have a normal life."
Tim calls every day a miracle. "There are no words to show my appreciation and the appreciation of my family for this generous, lifesaving gift from my donor," he says. "I am eternally grateful for this kind act and for the care I received at Mayo Clinic."