Mitch Reynolds didn’t leave Barnes-Jewish Hospital alone on Feb. 8. He left with the two donor lungs that had been transplanted into his chest just 10 days earlier.
The transplant gave Reynolds a second chance at life and forged a physical and emotional bond that he intends to honor for the rest of his life.
“Someone I don’t know became a friend of mine,” he says. “On the day I checked out of the hospital, it wasn’t just me. There were two of us checking out.”
Reynolds, 67, of Le Roy, Illinois, received his transplant Jan. 28. As he found out after the surgery, his donor lungs had a dramatic journey to the Barnes-Jewish operating room, with the retrieval team dealing with bad weather, a canceled charter flight and a run through Chicago’s Midway Airport to make a commercial flight with minutes to spare. Read about the lung retrieval here.
“I really didn’t know about it beforehand,” Reynolds says. “They told me the surgery might be delayed a little because of bad weather. But it sounds like there were some pretty crazy twists getting the lungs here.”
In the last several years, Reynolds has had his share of crazy twists leading up to his transplant. For most of his life, Reynolds had been healthy and extremely active. As a young man, he worked in manufacturing. At 40, he changed careers and became a licensed electrician.
In his spare time, he played guitar and sang with local country, rock, blues and jazz bands. Reynolds was seldom sick. He was always the one among his family and friends who stayed well while everyone else got the cold that was going around, he says.
Then about four years ago, he started noticing that he couldn’t lift quite as much or work quite as long before feeling fatigued. When climbing stairs winded him, he made an appointment to see his family physician who referred him to a pulmonology group in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.
The pulmonologists found that Reynolds’ blood oxygen saturation level was down to about 93 percent. But the cause for the drop was a mystery.
He kept working throughout the testing. Though he had retired as an electrician, he still helped his brother, a contractor. “I couldn’t sit still,” Reynolds says.
Finally, in the beginning of October 2020, doctors came up with a diagnosis — idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), a progressive disease in which the lungs grow scar tissue and stiffen, making breathing difficult.
The cause of IPF is unknown, although doctors think environmental factors — such as the dust, fumes and chemicals Reynolds was exposed to during his career — can play a role. Doctors also think the disease could have genetic or autoimmune components.
In other words, the robust immune system that had fought off colds and flu viruses may have started attacking Reynolds’ lungs.
Although patients with IPF can be treated with medications to help alleviate symptoms, the disease is progressive and most patients live only two to five years after they are diagnosed.
A lung transplant, however, can significantly prolong survival and improve the quality of life for certain patients. But at first, the pulmonologists told Reynolds that he was too old for a transplant.
“When I was diagnosed in October 2020, the doctor said if I had been in my 50s instead of my 60s, I’d be referred for a lung transplant. But at my age, I was ineligible. Eventually, I resigned myself to the fact that I was not going to be here in a few years.”
Major slowdown, fast progression
The IDF diagnosis marked the beginning of a major slowdown for Reynolds. He was easily fatigued and began to use supplemental oxygen when he slept.
In early November, he contracted pneumonia and was hospitalized. He was discharged five days later but had to be re-admitted after Thanksgiving. He fought to recover and again was discharged after five days.
As the months passed, Reynolds relied more and more on supplemental oxygen.
In summer 2021, doctors discovered that Reynolds had developed pulmonary hypertension, or elevated blood pressure in his lungs. It wasn’t clear whether the new condition was a result of the IPF or had developed independently. But either way, the additional diagnosis was bad news.
In the fall, one of his Bloomington pulmonologists referred Reynolds to the Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center, which accepts transplant patients up to age 65 and occasionally older — depending on the patient’s condition. With Reynolds’ previously excellent health and lack of other illnesses, he might qualify for transplant.
Reynolds jumped at the chance.
On Dec. 19, he arrived at Barnes-Jewish for his lung transplant evaluation. The testing hit a snag when he failed to walk far enough during a timed walk, indicating that he wasn’t strong enough to survive transplant surgery. “I didn’t miss it by much,” he says.
He exercised at home to increase his stamina.
But by Jan. 6, Reynolds needed more oxygen than he could get from a home oxygen tank.
Ramsey Hachem, MD, medical director of lung transplant for Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital, admitted Reynolds to Barnes-Jewish.
“He needed a lot of oxygen and was debilitated and weak,” Dr. Hachem says. “We wanted to start him on pulmonary rehab to build him up so he could survive surgery.”
Determined not to lose his chance at a transplant, Reynolds pushed himself in daily pulmonary rehab sessions.
He had also brought an acoustic guitar to pass the time. His impromptu concerts and efforts to keep up the spirits of staff and other patients soon made him a favorite on the floor.
“There are such nice people at Barnes-Jewish,” Reynolds says. “I mean, everyone I encountered was really kind and treated me so well. I was just returning the favor.”
Then on Friday, Jan. 28, his second chance — his donor lungs — arrived at Barnes-Jewish.
Remarkable recovery, good exercise and an emotional experience
Reynolds’ recovery after transplant was as remarkable as the effort to get the donor lungs to St. Louis. After spending the day after surgery sedated in 5600 ICU, he woke up hungry on Sunday morning. He was able sit up in a chair to eat. When his nurses asked if he’d like to try walking, he replied, “Heck, yeah!”
Soon Reynolds was walking around the ICU nurses station, then hospital hallways.
“I felt good,” he says. “I was surprised at how much energy I had.”
On Feb. 8, 11 days after surgery, Reynolds was discharged from Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
Since then, he has continued to regain his lost strength. He pushes himself to walk from Barnes-Jewish’s south Plaza side, through the Link, to the Center for Advanced Medicine during visits for testing, doctor’s appointments and pulmonary rehab.
“It’s good exercise,” he notes.
His determination to stay healthy springs from a desire to spare his loved ones, including his son and his wife, Lynee, any distress — and to honor the gift given to him by a grieving family in Chicago. Receiving a donor organ is “really quite an emotional experience,” Reynolds says.
As with many recipients, Reynolds’ joy of getting a second chance at life is tempered by knowing that it came from another person’s untimely death. “I had a lot of time to think about it and experience a wide range of conflicting emotions,” he says.
He’s decided that a way to pay tribute to his donor is to enjoy his life as much as he can and keep himself in the best shape possible.
“I never really thought about being an organ donor until I needed a transplant,” Reynolds says. “I want to stay as healthy as I can so that when it is my time, maybe I’ll be able to pass on an organ to someone else.”
More about Donate Life Month, Transplantation
National Donate Life Month was established by Donate Life America and its partnering organizations in 2003. Observed in April each year, National Donate Life Month helps raise awareness about donation, encourages Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors, and honors those who have saved lives through the gift of donation.
At the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center in St. Louis, our team offers a level of expertise and innovation found only among national leaders in organ transplantation. Highly skilled transplant surgeons, nurse transplant coordinators and other specialists provide a comprehensive and compassionate approach to care.
Our doctors conduct and use the latest research, treat high-risk patients, and offer multi-organ transplant to manage especially complex conditions. The depth and breadth of our experience results in new and innovative transplant opportunities for our patients and excellent long-term outcomes. Learn more