Kim Miller gets to live, to work, to garden, to fish, to enjoy all the routine yet miraculous aspects of everyday life because a stranger gave him a second chance through organ donation.
Kim suffers from pulmonary fibrosis, an always fatal disease, that took his brother’s life in 2000.
In 2008, when Kim started experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath he went to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with lower lobe pneumonia.
Kim knew better, and his fears were soon confirmed: He had inherited pulmonary fibrosis just as his brother had.
There is no treatment and no cure for the disease. Though Kim entered every clinical trial available to him, the disease progressed. Earlier this year, his health began to seriously decline, and while he maintained his job at the post office, life was a struggle.
If he did anything more than sit in a chair, he had to use supplemental oxygen. Even a 25-foot-trip to the bathroom taxed his lungs beyond their capacity.
In April, Kim went through the transplant workup at the pulmonary fibrosis center at Vanderbilt. In May, he was put on a transplant list.
Though he hesitated at first, telling himself, “I’m not all that bad right now,” he knew how volatile pulmonary fibrosis could be. In 2000, his brother was on oxygen but doing fairly well.
“One day he was good, the next day he was in the hospital, the next day he passed away,” Kim said.
The average wait for a donated lung is between six and nine months. Pulmonary fibrosis patients are put at the top of the transplant list because, like Kim’s brother, patients can go from OK to near-death quickly.
On September 14, Kim was at his church, Unaka Avenue Baptist, for the Wednesday night service when he got a call from Vanderbilt. He was told: “You got a lung. You’ve got to get over here (to Nashville).” Kim called his wife, Sherry, then raised his hand to interrupt the service.
His congregation, which had helped him with the fundraising efforts required by the transplant program, and Sherrie heard the news at the same time.
People awaiting transplant must be within a couple of hours of the transplant center, Sherrie said, so they arranged air transport and a backup as soon as Kim was put on the list.
“An air ambulance met us at the airport,” Sherrie said. “We were flying in and the weather was getting horrible. Fifteen minutes outside of Tri-Cities, the pilot said we might have to turn back. He got us to Sparta, a little south of Cookeville, and a ground ambulance picked us up there. He drove 95 miles in one hour. It was a very speedy trip because we had to be there within a certain time.”
Once at the hospital, Kim was taken directly to ICU, then into surgery for a single lung transplant. The surgery lasted about eight hours. (Kim was listed for a double lung transplant, but another man who was sicker than Kim received one of the two available lungs.)
Six days after surgery Kim was released from the hospital, but he and Sherrie were required to remain in Nashville within 10 minutes of the hospital for three months. Kim has to undergo physical rehabilitation five days a week, and there is the danger his body will reject the transplanted lung.
“If he begins to experience a rejection episode, and he has experienced one, you can catch it more quickly and treat it more quickly than at home,” Sherrie said.
Once released to come home, sometime in December, Kim will continue to exercise and will remain on medication the rest of his life.
The couple know little about the donor, other than he died in an accident. They do know how his willingness to donate his organs and his family’s consent changed lives.
“He saved five people that we’re aware of,” Kim said. “He donated two lungs, a heart, a liver and a pancreas. The woman who got the heart has small children at home. The other guy who got the lung with me is doing extremely well.”
Doctors tell Kim that with one lung he should be able to live a full life, return to work and return to the gardening and fishing he loves. He will have more time with Sherrie and his four grown daughters.
At Christmas he hopes to meet his new grandchild and spend time with his 3-year-old grandchild.
“Organ donation: I think it’s a great, great gift,” he said. “I encourage everybody to donate. Your soul goes to heaven but your body is left here in the ground.
You might as well help someone.”