25-year-old breathes normally again after double lung transplant

Dustin Lucas, whose cystic fibrosis clogged his lungs, has walked a long path to recovery

clambert@thetribunenews.comJanuary 6, 2013 

The bandages come off Dustin Lucas' chest Nov. 27 after his double lung transplant surgeries.

COURTESY PHOTO

For the first time in five years, Dustin Lucas can once again sleep through the night, uninterrupted by coughing. And for the first time in his life, he can get out of bed and not suffer through a coughing fit.

“I’m able to take normal breaths, and I’m getting a normal night’s sleep,” Lucas, 25, said Thursday, about six weeks after he received a double lung transplant to replace lungs that had been ravaged by cystic fibrosis.

“It’s pretty amazing not to be coughing every minute,” he added. “And it’s a little off-putting to people when you’re spitting things up all the time.”

Lucas, who graduated from San Luis Obispo High School in 2006, was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby. The disease causes the body to produce unusually thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs and affects the digestive system.

Years of daily therapy became a normal routine. As a child, his parents would drum on his back, sides and chest “to literally vibrate the mucus out of his lungs,” recalled his father, San Luis Obispo resident Dave Lucas.

As he grew older, Dustin Lucas would put on a vest that vibrates his chest to get the same result. He also relied on a number of medications.

He grew up strong, with few hospitalizations, Dave Lucas said. The family moved to San Luis Obispo

in 1999, and after high school graduation, Dustin Lucas took some classes at Cuesta College and studied railroad operations at Sacramento City College.

But after he turned 20, he was hospitalized each year. He found it more difficult to walk without stopping to catch his breath. Doctors started mentioning the possibility of a transplant.

“And as he got older, the disease started catching up with him,” Dave Lucas said.

By the time he went in for the transplant, Dustin Lucas’ lungs were at 26 percent of normal function, said his older sister, Amber Lucas. “To be an ideal transplant candidate, you have to be sick enough to need it but healthy enough to survive it,” she said.

Dustin Lucas was placed on a transplant list, removed because his condition improved, and then added back in September.

Dave Lucas quit his job as a groundskeeper at Cal Poly to make sure he could be available to drive his son up to Stanford Medical Center as soon as they received a call. He now helps his wife, Cheryl Lenhardt, with her engineering business.

The call came early Nov. 17, the morning after the family held a fundraiser for expenses associated with post-transplant care, estimated at $40,000 (which insurance doesn’t cover).

“That was one of the longest drives of my life,” Dave Lucas said. “I drove like crazy; a tense, nervous three hours. We tried to listen to talk radio and distract ourselves.”

They arrived on time, but Dustin Lucas wasn’t taken into surgery until 4:30 p.m. A few intense days followed — after the initial surgery, which lasted 10 hours, Dustin Lucas was taken back to surgery again to deal with bleeding in his chest cavity.

“He was amazingly positive,” Dave Lucas said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but he came to in a couple of hours and was smiling.”

Amber Lucas, a mechanical engineer, flew to California from her job in Switzerland to be by her brother’s side.

“He opened his eyes, smiled and said, ‘You’re here!’ ” she recalled. “My heart melted. There are no words to explain that feeling.”

Dustin Lucas was released Dec. 8 and since then has been living in a studio apartment in Mountain View, a 30-minute drive from the hospital, with his sister, who is his primary caretaker through the recovery process.

He hopes to eventually move to her home in Morgan Hill and later back to San Luis Obispo.
For now, Dustin Lucas and his sister take daily walks to build his strength, work out at a small gym and visit the hospital several times a week for tests.

He’s on a combination of anti-rejection and anti-infection medications. The risk of rejection will never completely vanish but will decrease gradually.

His lung function tested Friday at 76 percent and is expected to improve once his body adjusts and he grows stronger.

“I definitely would like to take full advantage of these new lungs,” Dustin Lucas said. “I’ve never hiked Bishop Peak. I’d like to be able to go on longer bike rides and not have to stop to catch my breath.”

The Lucas-Lenhardt family is grateful to their anonymous lung donor and thankful for the community’s support.

“I’m so thankful that I can sit here and talk and laugh with him,” Amber Lucas said. “Someone’s loved one passed away, and they were kind enough to give this amazing gift to us … so he can live and breathe.”

How you can help

The Lucas family has paired with the Children’s Organ Transplant Association to raise money for Dustin Lucas’ post-surgery therapy and recovery. COTA ensures that 100 percent of funds raised are used only for transplant-related expenses.

To donate, go to www.cotafordustinl.com or mail a check or money order (made payable to COTA, with “in honor of Dustin Lucas” on the memo line) to 2501 W. COTA Drive, Bloomington, IN 47403.

Photos and updates about Dustin Lucas can be viewed on Facebook at www.facebook.com/
LungAPalooza.

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