Double lung transplant patient reflects on life 26 years after lifesaving surgery

Double lung transplant patient reflects on life 26 years after lifesaving surgery

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Howell Graham was the first Cystic Fibrosis patient at UNC to receive a double lung transplant that saved his life in 1990. Today, he looks back on what all he has been able to accomplish since the day of his lifesaving surgery.

Howell was diagnosed with CF at just 2 years old. The doctors told his parents he would only live to be 7.

Howell says he was able to live a pretty normal life for most of his life due to his regular CF treatments. He played sports regularly and graduated from college at UNCW.

After college, the Cystic Fibrosis began to take a toll on Howell in a way it never had before. He grew sicker and sicker and was told the only way he would live was if he received a double lung transplant.

At the time, there had only been about 40 or 50 double lung transplant surgery's done worldwide, and none had ever been done at UNC. The surgery was risky and doctors told Howell if he had it, there was only a 50 percent chance he would make it off the table alive.

Howell was hesitant toward the surgery and actually turned the doctors down at first. But a couple months later, he grew even sicker and he decided that the surgery was for him.

"I had decided that this was going to do one of two things," Graham said. "Either work or put me out of my misery. Because at that point, I was just miserable."

The surgery was successful and Graham had become the first Cystic Fibrosis patient at UNC to receive a double lung transplant.

"I remember waking up in the ICU and of course I'm on the ventilator," Graham said. "And I remember about a day and a half later, getting off the ventilator and taking my first real breath and it was amazing breathing with normal lungs."

Howell said the first thing he did when he got out of the hospital was go for a boat ride "just to get out there and breathe that good salt air."

Since the surgery, Howell began a career in real estate appraisal and became a partner in the firm after two-and-a-half years, he got married, he and his wife bought a house and he has just been able to live a normal life essentially without CF.

Howell doesn't know who the donor lungs came from. That information is usually kept confidential. The only thing he does know about the lungs is that they came from a man who supposedly died in a motorcycle accident and the man was from Pensacola, Florida. Howell thinks this is ironic because he was born in Tallahassee which is not too far from Pensacola.

Howell doesn't know the organ donor's family either but said if he did he would tell them what a gift the lungs have been.

"I would tell that family that it's just been the greatest gift," Graham said. "That I would have never made it without their generosity and it's just, it saved my life. I wouldn't be here talking to you guys."

Today, Howell also speaks to a lot of groups about the importance of organ donation. He thinks not as many people are organ donors because they are just not educated on the process of how to become one.

"I think a lot of people aren't organ donors because they just don't really understand the process, and you certainly don't need them when you're gone," Graham said. "And why not give somebody like me a second chance. And it's just amazing what it can do when you're a donor."

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