Breathing easier – rehab at COLTT Center gives patient his life back

After a double lung transplant, Greenwood man is ready to get back to hiking and biking.

It was during a hike at Yosemite National Park in California that Eric Sheets first realized something was wrong.

A basketball player in college, he was tall and lean and had always been fit. But that day in 2015, when an older woman passed him on that mountain trail as he struggled to catch his breath, he knew his fatigue was not normal.

Fast forward to January 2019 and the 57-year-old engineer is ready to get back on that trail. But what a year it’s been. Diagnosed Jan. 30, 2018, with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, he spent most of the year struggling to breathe, barely able to talk.

A double lung transplant Dec. 1 came just in time, said Eric’s wife, Stephanie.

“We weren’t sure he would have made it; he was that bad,” she said, as she watched her high school sweetheart and husband of 34 years make another lap around the track at the COLTT Center (Center of Life for Thoracic Transplant) at IU Health Methodist Hospital. This place has been his home away from home for the past four weeks, ever since being released from Methodist just before Christmas.

And today is graduation day. After this last session, Eric will ring the bell signifying his completion of the program.

“It feels good to push myself and to be pushed,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed it. I mean there are parts that are torture, but I see the bigger picture; it’s all to help me get stronger.”

“He loves it here,” Stephanie said. “He kept saying he looks forward to the day when it’s his muscles wearing him out and not his lungs.”

That day has come, with help from the COLTT team.

“They’re all really encouraging, and they make it fun,” said Eric, who after weeks of pedaling a stationary bike, is looking forward to getting on his own bike at home. “I hope my muscles will be in decent shape to at least ride around the neighborhood with the grandkids. I’d love nothing more than that.”

The couple, who live in Greenwood, have been inseparable since the transplant. Stephanie packed up her car with clothes and necessities when she drove Eric to Methodist on Nov. 30. For the next three weeks, she said, she never left the hospital.

In all that time and in the weeks since, their family has been showered with kindnesses from friends, neighbors and hospital staff. The prayers have been steady as well.

“We know that God doesn’t let you go through something like this without some purpose,” Eric said. “We think he’s given us a real story that he’s going to want us to tell to encourage others. Things are going to happen in life, and sometimes really bad things, but that doesn’t mean he’s abandoned you. He’s going to get you through it.”

Physical therapy assistant Zell Crawford has been there to help Eric get through it as well.

“From the very beginning, Eric had nothing but a positive attitude despite his weakness and his lack of endurance,” Crawford said. “He was just focused on doing better and being better. And look at him today. He can pretty much do whatever he wants now.”

As Crawford beamed, his patient proudly rang the bell, after quickly changing from his workout shirt to his Yosemite shirt. The meaning was clear. Eric was going back to that park, back to that trail. And when he gets there, he promised to send photos back to the COLTT team as his way of thanking them.

“He said he wants to go back to hiking, and we’ve prepared him,” said physical therapist Christy DiPerna.  “His smile tells the story. That’s why we do what we do.”

— By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist