His transplant surgeon, Dr. Joshua Sonett, chief of general thoracic surgery and director of the Price Family Center for Comprehensive Chest Care at NewYork-Presbyterian / Columbia University Medical Center, encouraged Tim to be as healthy as he could be leading up to the surgery.
“He said to me, if you can walk into the surgery, you can walk out. And I thought, I’m going to run!” Tim walked laps around the hospital floor as he waited, tethered to a portable oxygen machine.
A donor match, a woman with the same size lungs and blood type as Tim’s, was found the next month. During the four-hour surgery, Dr. Sonett used the bilateral sequential technique. First, he made two small incisions below Tim’s pectoral muscles. Then he deflated and removed one of Tim’s lungs, using the other old lung to keep him alive while he implanted the new lung. Then, using the new lung to keep Tim alive, he removed and replaced the second lung. “Like something old, something new,” says Tim.
When he woke up, Tim’s first thought was the realization that he’d received female lungs. His second thought was that he couldn’t believe how good he felt.
“I woke up and there were no tubes, no oxygen,” he recalls. “When I breathed in, it felt like a jet engine. It was so solid and powerful. When I sneezed, it was loud, which hadn’t happened in years!”
Most patients take about six weeks to recover from a lung transplant. Tim was released in six days. This was partly because of his superb level of fitness, as well as Dr. Sonett’s technique, which avoided breaking his sternum. “My recovery was off the charts,” he says. Within 24 hours after surgery, he was walking up and down the hospital’s halls and even asked for a pair of dumbbells. The hospital staff obliged.
While Tim was in the recovery room, Dr. Sonett casually mentioned he had recently run the New York City Marathon — and asked Tim if he wanted to run it together the following November.
“Many times, offering things like that is a metaphor so people know they are going to be better,” says Dr. Sonett. “It’s kind of like, ‘I’ll see you in five years.’ But he basically said, ‘I am not only going to get better, I am truly going to run that marathon with you.’”
And they did. Tim was running a mile just a month after his surgery and finished a half-marathon in the summer of 2010 while he trained for the marathon that November. Tim and Dr. Sonett ran the race together, finishing in about six hours. As they approached the finish line, Tim turned to his doctor and joked, “Are you going to let me win?” Dr. Sonett replied, “No, we are going to cross together.”
Today, Tim and his wife have two sons, ages 8 and 4. He spends his weekends coaching a T-ball team, enjoying backyard barbecues and taking his kids to the playground. The family often travels to California to visit his in-laws, always stopping at Disneyland. Tim sounds ecstatic about his life and says he feels amazing, even though there are challenges that come with transplanted lungs. He has to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of his life and has side effects like water retention, muscle loss and type 1 diabetes, for which he must take daily insulin.
“Even with the side effects, saying I feel a million times better after the transplant doesn’t begin to describe it,” he says. “I don’t have to pump my chest anymore. I don’t get out of breath.”
Tim still works as a personal trainer but says his transplant has completely changed the way he approaches fitness. “Before, I’d be focused on getting my clients to look good in jeans,” he says, “but now I train people differently. It’s all about getting and staying healthy.”
His training approach incorporates biomarkers, or health indicators, such as cholesterol, blood pressure and family history of diseases. For example, he’ll sit down with a client to look at his or her blood results for signs of vitamin D deficiency or high cholesterol levels and use that as a starting point to develop a fitness plan and recommended diet.
“Sustained health must come from within,” he explains. “Are you here to lose 10 pounds or get your blood pressure down? My job as a personal trainer is to understand where someone is coming from and what their true health goals are.”
Tim is so passionate about a biomarker approach to fitness that he and Dr. Sonett have written a book about it together.
“I feel there’s a reason I’m here and didn’t die,” he says. “I was truly given a second chance. The worst thing you can do is waste it.”