Palmyra man has new life with donated pair of lungs
Robert (Tommy) Carroll has received the best gift he could ever hope for: an organ donation.
‘The doctors told me I had only four to six months left,’ said Tommy, 61, who was born in Laconia and now resides in Sennville with his wife, Patty. ‘I fought for every breath the last seven years.’
A former self-employed drywall subcontractor, Tommy was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in 1989. His condition steadily worsened in 1998, and in 2003 he was told his lungs were functioning at about 17 percent.
‘For 41 years’ Tommy mixed drywall, he said. ‘The dust would come up in your face.’
Smoking probably compounded the problem, so he quit in 1989.
Tommy knew he was in bad shape. He could only shuffle a few steps before he was out of breath.
He was sent to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis to see if he was a candidate for an experimental procedure. The bad news was he wasn’t; the good news was he was put on the organ donor list for new lungs.
Patty, 57, a registered nurse, said the procedure for organ donations has changed. Instead of being assigned a number, the recipients are selected on the basis of the severity of their conditions. There are other considerations, too, such as location. In Tommy’s case, it still took 17 months before he received his new lungs.
‘I was put on the ‘short list’ in mid-January’ of 2005, Tommy said.
That required the Carrolls to relocate to St. Louis to be closer to the hospital. (The Carrolls said Barnes-Jewish does about 70 transplants a year, compared to five in Louisville.)
The hospital offered places to rent, but Patty said they were about $1,000 a month. They found a duplex on their own that rented for $400. Their neighbors and other patients waiting for transplants became their adopted family since their own family couldn’t make the four-hour trip very often.
On March 13, the Carrolls got the phone call they had longed for: Hurry to the hospital, it’s time for surgery.
They had been told there could be ‘dry runs,’ where something doesn’t work out and the surgery would be canceled, but this turned out to be the real thing.
Patty kissed her husband early that morning as they took him away to be prepped. She was updated on his condition throughout the day. At one point she was told that one lung was not working and her husband had been put on a bypass machine.
But eventually both lungs began functioning. The entire procedure was finished about 12:30 a.m. the next day.
Tommy doesn’t remember much about the next six days, only what his wife and others have told him. When he was discharged from the hospital, the couple returned to their duplex. (They weren’t supposed to move away from the hospital area until about a month and a half ago.) Being close to Barnes-Jewish proved beneficial when Tommy collapsed one day in the yard. Patty rushed him the three miles to the hospital. He had a blood clot in one lung.
He was discharged on the Carroll’s 39th wedding anniversary.
The Carrolls know very little about the organ donor, a 20-year-old female from Georgia, but they are extremely grateful that the family honored their loved one’s wishes to be organ donor. Patty is in the process of writing a letter to the donor’s family that will go through the organ donor foundation first. Then, if the family desires, they can get in touch with the Carrolls.
Since Tommy’s transplant, most, if not all, of the Carroll family members have become organ donors.
‘I wish more people would sign to be a donor,’ Patty said, who said mistruths abound. In fact, she used to believe some of them. When their son, Robert Carroll, was killed in a car wreck a few years ago, they did not donate any of his organs.
Now that they’re back home, the Carrolls are busy with fund-raising. They had agreed to raise $100,000 for the National Foundation for Transplants to cover Tommy’s uninsured medical bills and anti-rejection medicine.
Tommy takes 30 pills each day; he used to take 77. Prescriptions run about $3,000 a month.
‘A lot of people think we’ve already raised the $100,000 since Tommy got his lungs,’ Patty said, when they’ve only raised about $30,000 so far. The National Foundation for Transplants made it possible to go ahead without having the money up front.
The Lions clubs, St. Michael’s Catholic Church, and the Palmyra Fish and Game club have helped with fund-raising. So has a committee. (New members are needed. If interested, call Patty at 364-6773 or committee chair Montanya Barr at 1-812-923-8448.)
There will be a roadblock Saturday beginning at 8 a.m. at the intersection of S.R. 135 and U.S. 150 in Palmyra.
Patty said they will have a booth at New Albany’s Harvest Homecoming and bingo in November.
‘We may have another dance,’ Patty said. The Carrolls’ granddaughter, 16-year-old Candice (Charlie) Carroll, wants to be able to dance with her grandfather because at the last benefit dance Tommy was too weak to hit the floor with her.
The Carrolls said they are extremely grateful for everything that everyone has done for them.
Tax-deductible donations can be sent to: National Foundation for Transplants, P.O. Box 215, Greenville, IN 47124. Write ‘In honor of Tommy Carroll’ on the memo line.
‘Everyone was very nice,’ Tommy said of his neighbors, doctors and nurses in St. Louis.
Tommy will return to Barnes-Jewish in September, then again in March, for checkups. After that, he’ll go back for yearly exams. He currently sees a pulmonologist once a month, and five times a year he’ll be checked for rejection. Tommy does physical therapy, including walking on a treadmill and riding a stationary bike at home.
‘I can’t keep up with him now,’ Patty said, who is adjusting to having her husband do things around their home. Before Tommy had his double-lung transplant, Patty was doing everything. ‘I was used to waiting on him hand and foot,’ she said. ‘Now he’s doing things like washing dishes and mowing grass.’
Tommy has rejoined his buddies at the Palmyra Sav-A-Step for morning coffee and conversation. Some of them have even quit smoking; those who smoke don’t do it in Tommy’s presence. His doctors recommended that he avoid children four and younger, and he wears a mask when mowing the yard. He also has to be cautious of skin cancer, which 90 percent of organ donor recipients get because of the anti-rejection medication, the Carrolls said.
‘I feel wonderful,’ said Tommy, although he cannot lift anything heavier than five pounds for at least a year. ‘The first year is the most critical.’
In the meantime, Tommy said, ‘I can breath good and I can walk good.’