It all started with a tickle in his throat, a nagging cough and then a downhill spiral that left him weighing 102 pounds. Without a double lung transplant, he wouldn’t make it. Five months later, Nicholas Brown is back in the weight room with a new set of lungs, using each breath to its fullest.
The tickle in his throat was irritating. It crept up every now and then and caused Nicholas Brown to cough.
Then that little annoyance started coming around more often. A tickle that was more intense, like a scratch. A cough that lasted for days.
Brown was a healthy, 37-year-old guy. He lifted weights and ran. He was active.
That irksome cough? Whatever. It would pass.
It always did.
The night was a cold one, the kind of deep cold where the air seems too frigid to even breathe.
It caused Brown to launch into a coughing fit that wouldn’t end. Uncontrollable coughing. He was out with friends when one of them, a woman named Liz, got stern with Brown.
She insisted he go see a doctor about the cough. She pushed hard.
“Even though I was trying to be stubborn and say, ‘Ah, it’s nothing. It will go away,’ everyone else is noticing,” says Brown. “They are noticing, this is just not right.”
Days later, Brown made an appointment to see a doctor. He would get some medicine, Brown thought.
And that cough would be history.
One doctor blamed the cough on acid reflux. When the medicine for that didn’t work, Brown was sent to an allergist.
But he wasn’t allergic to anything — except black mold and cockroaches. Brown was sent for a CT scan.
“The doctor comes out and it was the look the vet gives you when it’s time to put the dog down,” Brown says.
She told him he had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
“I jokingly said, ‘Oh, can you write me a prescription to get me out of work?’” Brown says. “She said, ‘Yes, I can.’”
That’s when it hit him. This must be serious. But he’d never even heard of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.
Come to find out, that cough was caused by scarring of his lungs. IPF is a disease with no known cause. Over time, the scarring gets worse, making it hard to take a deep breath. The lungs cannot take in enough oxygen.
And it causes a cough. That awful cough.
Once at IU Health, doctors started preparing Brown for the possibility of a lung transplant. A very likely possibility.
“I just wanted to hang on to the lungs I had,” Brown says.
He was finally at a job he loved. After two college degrees, one in telecommunications and the other in business, Brown had just become a journeyman tool and die maker. He was doing high precision grinding in the aerospace field.
But doctors told him, that job was no longer allowed. And even though Brown didn’t want to give up his own lungs, he would soon find out he didn’t have a choice.
And there likely wasn’t much time.
“It’s hard to put into words because you start looking at survival rates,” says Brown, “how long they say the average person lives after transplant.”
By April of this year, Brown was inside IU Health Methodist Hospital weighing 102 pounds (instead of his usual 170), struggling to survive.
“They told me they had to list me (for transplant) or send me home for hospice,” Brown says. “I was almost gone.”
On March 5, lungs became available that were a match for Brown. He went to sleep the next morning for his transplant surgery and woke up two days later.
“For me it was instant,” he says. “I woke up and I knew I was breathing.”
It was a remarkable feeling that most take for granted.
“I can’t even describe it,” he says. “Have someone hold your head under water for five minutes and then let you breathe.”
It’s impossible, Brown says, to thank the people and the place that saved your life.
His surgeon and the nurses. The pulmonary rehab staff and the Center of Life for Thoracic Transplant. The physical therapists and David Roe, M.D., medical director of pulmonary critical care and lung transplant at IU Health.
IU Health boasted the 12th largest lung transplant program in the country by volume in 2017, performing 65 transplants. That’s up from 50 just five years ago.
What a wonderful place to be cared for, Brown says. And recently, while at the gym working out, he looked in the mirror.
“Good grief, I look so much different than I did a couple months ago. I was a walking skeleton,” he says. “I look human again.”
Brown snapped a selfie at the gym and posted it with a thank you to the IU Health transplant team.
“Just thinking about all that they did for me,” he says. “I’m where I am today and it’s all because of them.”
Brown comes to Methodist twice a week for rehab. He is up to 132 pounds. This past weekend, he went to GenCon. He’s looking forward to plenty of wonderful, healthy years ahead.
And he has started a blog about his journey called Borrowed Breaths.
The tagline Brown created says it all: “Each breath is a gift. So use it to the fullest.”
— By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Benbow via email email@example.com or on Twitter @danabenbow.