Surviving A Double-Lung Transplant: 'Life Is Good'

Originally published on July 22, 2011 8:48 am

As a child, Howell Graham was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that often impairs lung function. By his late 20s, Howell would lose his breath doing things as routine as brushing his teeth.

So he underwent a risky operation — in 1990, he had a double lung transplant. And today, Howell, 49, is one of the longest-surviving recipients of that surgery. Recently, Howell and his mother, Nan, talked about a few moments when it seemed like he might not make it.

"I remember waking up from the surgery being on the vent [a ventilator], and seeing this absolutely beautiful brunette nurse," Howell says. "She held my hand her entire shift."

As he recovered, Howell drifted in and out of consciousness. And the next time he woke up, the hospital shifts had changed.

Then, he recalls, "a male nurse came in — this big burly dude," as his mother laughs. "And I was not happy at all."

Howell could not yet speak, as the ventilator helped him breathe. But he had a pen and paper.

"I just was writing notes like, 'Get him the heck out of here,' and 'I don't want this guy. Get me the girl back,'" he says.

"Lots of cursing," Nan remembers. "Lots of cursing."

"Lots of cursing," Howell agrees. "And my dad was tearing up the notes, because he was scared the male nurse would find the notes and kill me. So he spent his time intercepting my hate notes."

"Which is kind of understandable," Nan says.

After a month, Howell was able to leave the hospital.

"And when you got home, things were going well," Nan says.

"Well, things were going fantastic," Howell says.

His recovery was going so well that Howell took his father's 17-foot boat out — "thinking I knew what I was doing," he says.

"I ended up jumping out of the boat. And the boat got away from me, and it's too far to swim. And I really thought I was going to drown."

"Six months out of a double lung transplant," his mother says.

Howell says he was worried — but not just about possibly drowning.

"The first thing that popped in my mind was Dr. Egan, who's kind of a little fireball," he says, "how mad he was going to be that he had given me this transplant — and I blew it just being stupid."

"You said, 'He would have killed me!'" Nan remembers. "And I said, 'He would have had to get in line.' Your father and I would have been the first in line to kill you for this. We worked 28 years; he worked 12 hours."

"Yeah," Howell says.

After his surgery, Howell overcame a ruptured appendix; he is also a colon cancer survivor.

And more than 20 years after receiving his transplant, Howell says, "These are my lungs. And it's pretty amazing to have made it that far out. I've just been a lucky person."

"Life is good," Nan says.

"Life is good," Howell agrees.

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It is Friday morning, which is when we hear from StoryCorps, the project that travels the country recording the story of every day Americans. As a child, Howell Graham was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that often affects the lungs. By his late twenties, Howell would lose his breath, doing things as simple as brushing his teeth. So he underwent a risky operation, in 1990 when he had a double lung transplant. Today Howell is one of the longest surviving recipients of that surgery. Recently, Howell and his mom Nan remembered a few times when it seemed like he might not make it.

Mr. HOWELL GRAHAM: I remember waking up from the surgery being on the vent and seeing this absolutely beautiful brunette nurse. She held my hand her entire shift. And, you know, I was kind of in and out of consciousness. And I guess the following shift a male nurse came in this big burly dude. And I was not happy at all.

I couldn't talk because I was on the ventilator, but I just was writing notes like get him the heck out of here, and I don't want this guy. Get me the girl back.

Ms. NAN GRAHAM: Lots of cursing, lots of cursing.

Mr. GRAHAM: Lots of cursing. And my dad was tearing up the notes, because he was scared the male nurse would find the notes and kill me. So he spent his time intercepting my hate notes.

Ms. GRAHAM: Which is kind of understandable. When did you get out of the hospital?

Mr. GRAHAM: It was a month later.

Ms. GRAHAM: And when you got home, things were going well, and you...

Mr. GRAHAM: Well, things were going fantastic. And I'd been out in my dad's little 17-foot boat thinking I knew what I was doing. And I ended up jumping out of the boat. And the boat got away from me, and it's too far to swim. And I really thought I was going to drown.

Ms. GRAHAM: Six months out of a double lung transplant.

Mr. GRAHAM: Six mounts out of double lung transplant, and the first thing that popped into my mind was Dr. Egan, who's kind of a little fireball, how mad he was going to be that he had given me this transplant and I blew it just being stupid.

Ms. GRAHAM: You said, he would have killed me. And I said, he would have had to get in line. Your father and I would have been the first in line to kill you for this. We worked 28 years; he worked 12 hours.

Mr. GRAHAM: Yeah. Twenty-one years later, almost, that these are my lungs and it's pretty amazing to have made it that far out. I've just been a lucky person.

Ms. GRAHAM: Life is good.

Mr. GRAHAM: Life is good.

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INSKEEP: That's Howell Graham and his mom Nan at StoryCorps in Wilmington, North Carolina. Their conversation will be archived with all others at the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress. And always you can get the Podcast at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.