When Jason Egbert was eight months old he was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis, a disease that’s genetically inherited and primarily affects your lungs.
“My lungs would produce thick sticky mucus causing infections and pneumonia that would cause scarring in my lungs and that’s why it’s called Cystic Fibrosis, it leaves your lung tissue fibrous and scarred,” Egbert described late last month.
Over time, Egbert’s lungs decreased in size.
“My lungs would fill up with blood and scar very fast, my lung function dropped down to 17 percent. I was on 100% oxygen in the middle of optometry school, and that was really unexpected. I thought I would keep my original lungs for a lot longer but in the back of my mind I always knew with this disease that it might be necessary to receive a double lung transplant,” he said.
Egbert’s doctors predicted that he only had about six to eight months left to live.
“I was very desperate for anything that could help. That’s where the stress and anxiety came from. My clock was running down,” he said.
At this point, Egbert knew he needed to get listed for a transplant so he started working with a team of specialists. At the time, he was living in Southern California and got evaluated at USC; the waiting time was about 17 months.
Egbert knew he didn’t have that much time and started looking at other places. Duke University had a much shorter waitlist, 17 days, so Egbert and his family picked up everything and moved to Durham, North Carolina.
Before being listed, Egbert had to take six weeks of strengthening courses to make sure his body was as healthy and strong as it could be. Multiple tests are also done on transplant organs to find out if they are the right size and are healthy enough to qualify for a transplant. Since lung tissue is directly exposed to the environment, it increases the risk of rejection and infection, unlike a heart that’s contained in the body and protected.
In September 2012 Egbert received a call telling him it was time; they had a set of lungs on the way from Pennsylvania. Egbert and his family rushed to the hospital and prepared for the nine-hour surgery.
The healing process included physical therapy where Egbert relearned how to breathe, cough, and swallow. Egbert also did a lot of walking.
“There’s a nurses’ station that we would walk around and do laps. That’s how we tried to be active and meet our goals,” he said. “Before the transplant, I could only do one lap, I’d have to stop to breathe, I’d even start turning blue because of lack of oxygen to my body and my brain. After transplantation, I was only in the hospital for five days, but on the last day I was there I did 100 laps without oxygen. It was incredible what those new breathers did for me. I was a new person with a new lease on life.”
With his new lungs, Egbert was able to finish Optometry school and now owns First Sight Family Vision in Battle Ground. According to Egbert, being a patient his entire life has helped him have more empathy for his patients and he is finally able to work his dream job, without worrying about his lung function.
Now that Egbert doesn’t have to do breathing treatments for hours each day, he has more time to do the things he enjoys.
“My wife and I have two beautiful foster kids and I love going on hikes with my family. Just being able to get on the floor and wrestle with them without worrying about my ability to breathe is so freeing,” he said.
Of course, while this is a miracle for Egbert and his family, another family lost a loved one. Travis Tillett was a sixteen-year-old who was on his way to school when he got into a fatal car crash, and his family decided to donate his organs.
Egbert wrote a letter to the transplant foundation, asking to contact the donor family to thank them and let them know how grateful he is. Immediately after receiving the letter Tillett’s family jumped on the opportunity.
“His family flew out to come meet us on Easter morning, so it was pretty cool to have that tie of life and rebirth,” Egbert said. “We got up with the sunrise, and I brought my stethoscope for them to listen to the lungs. It was a really touching moment for them to be able to hear their boy’s lungs living on and giving life to another person. It was beautiful. It was a sacred moment that I will treasure for the rest of my life.”
The circumstances brought both families together.
“It’s been incredibly healing for us to meet and be together.We’re kinda family now. We talk all the time,” Egbert said. “It’s been beautiful to have them express that they are so excited and happy that their tragedy could be a miracle to continue and bless someone else’s life.”