The miracle of modern medicine

Special to The TribuneJanuary 10, 2013 

Phil Dirkx

Warren Harden lived on his family’s ranch northeast of San Miguel. He had cystic fibrosis. I thought of him again as I read a front-page story in Monday’s Tribune.

It told about Dustin Lucas of San Luis Obispo, who also has cystic fibrosis. He recently received a double lung transplant and is recovering nicely. Warren Harden received a similar lung transplant back in 1987.

At that time, lung transplants were considered experimental. As of that March, only eight lung transplants had ever been performed on cystic-fibrosis patients. Five of those surgeries were unsuccessful.

Warren Harden received his transplant in August 1987 at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. His was also unsuccessful.

He did well for about 24 hours. It was the first time in his life he’d breathed with clear lungs. But then his kidneys began to fail. He died the next day. He was 29.

Dustin Lucas is 25. He got his new lungs about seven weeks ago at the Stanford Medical Center. He’s breathing and sleeping normally. He lives in an apartment a half-hour from the hospital.

People who have cystic fibrosis were born with a defective gene. It causes them to have extremely thick, sticky mucus. About 70,000 people have it worldwide.

Mucus is that slimy stuff that comes out of our noses, mouths and throats. We also have it in our lungs and elsewhere. For most of us it’s a good lubricant and protective coating.

But the cystic-fibrosis gene makes people’s mucus so thick and sticky that it clogs their lungs and other organs. Their clogged lungs harbor destructive bacteria. Children with cystic fibrosis once died before starting elementary school. Now, with modern treatment they may live to 40 and beyond.

Warren Harden was 4½ years old when his cystic fibrosis was diagnosed and his parents learned to treat him. His mother thumped his chest for 1½ hours, twice a day, to loosen the mucus. He slept in a mist tent every night until he was 16. His mother washed his bedding and tent every day.

He also lived a full life. He worked on the ranch and guided hunters on it. He went to junior college and took flying lessons. He and his wife, Victoria, were married in July 1982, but had no children.

As he got older, however, he stayed in hospitals longer and more often. Antibiotics no longer controlled bacteria in his lungs. He told me, “I don’t have a whole lot of time.” He was right.

Medical science is improving. If Warren Harden had been born 25 years later, he too might have lived a longer, fuller life.

Phil Dirkx's column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or

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