New Lung, New Life: Frankfort man gets second wind with lifesaving transplant

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Lung transplant patient Larry Dukes on April 7, 2021. Photo by Pete Comparoni | UKphoto
LEXINGTON, Ky. (UK Public Affairs)  Larry Dukes of Frankfort was living the retirement life to the fullest.

He retired from a career in sales in 2011, and since then, his days have been full of golfing, gardening, bowling and traveling with his wife Shirley to rock concerts. He even bought his dream car, a Porsche Boxster S, and traveled the backroads of Kentucky with the local Porsche club.

In the spring of 2019, Dukes noticed that his favorite activities were getting harder and harder. He was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary hypertension, a condition in which the tissue in the lungs becomes scarred and damaged. As the disease progresses, breathing becomes more and more difficult.

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“All of the things that I loved to do were severely impacted, and ultimately ended, because I had to be on oxygen 24/7 due to breathing difficulty,” said Dukes. “I managed relevantly well in 2019, continued playing golf and even bowled that fall. But the fibrosis was advancing and I required much more oxygen.”

Dukes’s pulmonologist referred him to the UK Transplant Center as a candidate for a lung transplant. He was scheduled for testing in April 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic put everything on hold.

By the time he underwent testing in July, his condition degraded to the point where walking up the stairs was too difficult and required too much oxygen. He met with Dr. Maher Baz, medical director of the lung transplant program, who, after bonding over a mutual love of Tom Petty, walked him through the transplant process.

“My initial reaction was, ‘I don’t know if I want to go through all of this,’ and just as importantly, I didn’t want to put Shirley through the stress of being a caretaker,” said Dukes. “My biggest fear was becoming an invalid. I explained this to Dr. Baz and he said, ‘That’s fine, why don’t you think about it and we’ll see you in two weeks.’”

“Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis affects about 20 in every 100,000 people,” said Baz. “He had several months to live without lung transplant.”

In the meantime, his transplant coordinator put him in touch with another lung transplant recipient who had experienced the same thing. The message was loud and clear: get on the transplant list.

While he waited for his new lung, Dukes started pulmonary rehab. It helped him get stronger and to increase his walking intervals, but it was determined that he needed much more oxygen than he was getting.

“I needed five liters at rest, 10 to 15 liters for short walks and 25 liters for extended walks,” said Dukes. “I ended up with oxygen units by my bed, a higher capacity unit for the house, a five-liter unit for the car, a liquid oxygen unit that would provide 15 liters that I used to go from the parking lot to the transplant center or pulmonary rehab and then switch to hospital oxygen tanks. I was doing rehab twice a week and saw the transplant team for lab work every two weeks. While I was getting stronger, I could tell it was getting harder to breathe.”

On Nov.18, Dukes got the call that there was a lung available. He and his wife rushed to the hospital, only to get bad news when they arrived: there was a problem with the lung and it couldn’t be transplanted.

“We had been advised that this happens sometimes and to be prepared for what is called a ‘dry run,’” said Dukes. “We understood, but it was still devastating. I’ll never forget how my nurse and coordinator were crying. The next day, Dr. Baz called me to apologize and I told him I was fine, it wasn’t meant to be and I appreciated all of the effort of so many people to no avail. So then we went back on the lung transplant waitlist, hoping another opportunity would come soon.”

Less than a month later, on Dec. 10, that opportunity came.

Dukes arrived at UK Chandler Hospital at 4 p.m. and by 10 p.m., he was in the operating room. The transplant took just under 12 hours. When he woke up in the ICU, he saw Dr. Baz, who asked him how he felt.

“I feel great”, he recalled saying. Dr. Baz remarked on how strong his voice sounded. “It should be, I said, because I can breathe! While I did have an oxygen cannula in my nose, the difference when drawing a breath was amazing. It wasn’t a strain to breathe, it just flowed. The feeling is hard to explain, but it is wonderful.”

Dukes spent 13 days in the hospital – discharged just in time for Christmas. Since then, he has continued to improve day by day. He could climb stairs again. Soon after, he was cleared to drive. By March, he played a full round of golf – while wearing a mask, of course.

“I have a group of three friends who are fully vaccinated, and we plan to play four days a week this summer,” said Dukes. “My wife and I have both received our vaccines and as soon as my children get theirs, we look forward to seeing them again and to be able to see and hug them and the grandchildren.”

As grateful as he is to the Dr. Baz and the transplant team, Dukes says there is one person without whom his second chance at life wouldn’t be possible – his donor.

“None of this would have been possible without the generous donor who gave me this lung,” he said. “Words can’t describe how much it means to me, my wife, my children and my grandchildren that I am here and getting well again. “I don’t know how long I would have lived without this wonderful gift, but it wouldn’t have been long.”

April is Donate Life Month, a celebration of the generous and selfless donors who, through the national organ donation registry, have helped thousands like Larry Dukes get a second chance at life. More than a thousand Kentuckians are on the waiting list for a donation of a lifesaving organ or tissue.

“I have thought so many times about the loss the family has suffered, and how generous they were to provide the gift of life to strangers,” said Dukes. “Even though I don’t know the donor’s identity, I have grieved with them. Many times, over the three months since my lung transplant, I find myself crying, reflecting on how devastating it must be to lose a loved one and how grateful and lucky I am that the donor and family provided me life. I always felt guilty when I thought, ‘somebody has to die for me to live’ and it still causes me pause. But know this – I’ll always be grateful for this special person’s gift. They are literally a part of me. I’ll think of them and thank them every day.”

Visit donatelifeky.org to learn more about becoming an organ donor.