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He would lug the livestock feed and the sloshing water in 5-gallon buckets, trying to step over beams.
He would struggle to lift those bales of hay.
David Starner had done this his whole life, raised on a farm in Claypool, Ind. He knew the physical strength and stamina the work took.
And he knew what it felt like to breathe while he did that work – to breathe freely.
Yet, David wasn’t breathing freely now. He was having trouble with those buckets. And those bales. He would have to sit them down, just to catch his breath.
He would lean over, wondering what in the world was wrong.
Doctors told him it was his age. David was in his 50s, after all. He was out of shape, they said. He needed more exercise, more cardio to get his heart rate up.
But David knew deep down that wasn’t it. Something just wasn’t right.
In April, the trouble breathing and the fatigue got to be too much. David went to the hospital. He was sure he had pneumonia.
“I thought, ‘Well, I‘ll just get cured of this and go back to work,’” says David, who also worked 30 years as a welder. “And the doctor came in and told me I had interstitial lung disease.”
It was pulmonary fibrosis. His lungs were scarred – scarred badly. There was no cure for it. David would need a lung transplant.
“That was a real blow to us,” he says. And there wasn’t much time.
“The specialist told us, ‘You’re going to have to get new lungs -- and now,’” says Kris Starner, David’s wife of 32 years.
There ended up being much less time than they thought.
David was put on the transplant list at IU Health. But he was getting so weak -- about 20 percent lung capacity -- that living at home wasn’t possible.
“Oh, it was terrible,” Kris says. “He couldn’t walk but a couple feet and he was huffing and puffing.”
It was scary. It was devastating.
Doctors worried David wasn’t strong enough to get through the operation. In early September, he was admitted to IU Health Methodist Hospital.
He would need to get his strength back before he could get new lungs.
It was late at night on Sept. 23 when the new lungs were ready. David hadn’t been scared until that moment -- when it was time to go to the operating room.
Things started to sink in.
“It’s not like they were just fixing a broken arm or something like that,” David says. “They were going to take stuff out and put stuff in. It messes with your mind a little bit.”
Kris, on the other hand, says she felt at peace. For some reason, she was good with this. She knew her husband would be OK.
Neither knew as they embarked on that surgery that David was a milestone patient – IU Health’s 900th lung transplant.
But, the Starners say, that is even more incredible to think back on. To know what capable hands David was in – that IU Health had already done 899 of these surgeries before.
The 900th lung transplant at IU Health pushes the program into an elite tier – top 10 in the nation based on volume.
IU Health does about 50 to 60 lung transplants a year, says David Roe, M.D., medical director of pulmonary critical care and lung transplant at IU Health.
By the end of October, 53 lung transplants had been performed – on pace for IU Health’s highest volume year yet.
About half of the transplants performed are for pulmonary fibrosis, like David Starner. Others are for COPD patients, those with pulmonary hypertension, cystic fibrosis and rare lung diseases.
“Not only are we really proud of this milestone, but Mr. Starner is a wonderful patient to have as the 900th," Dr. Roe says.
He’s a hard-working guy with an awesome family -- and he wears John Deere hats. David gave Dr. Roe one of those hats that sits in his office.
“He is the perfect patient,” Dr. Roe says.
A model patient, who went to rehab for two to three hours everyday for weeks at the Center of Life for Thoracic Transplant.
“It’s a very intense program,” Dr. Roe says. “And the results are very good.”
Today is going home day, 10 weeks after David Starner was admitted to Methodist.
“I woke up in the ICU and it’s all over,” David says. “It’s done. I didn’t have the oxygen in my face. And I could breathe.”
David and Kris Starner can hardly contain their excitement that he is well enough to go home, back to the farm, back to their three grown sons and two granddaughters.
Back to weekends together, working on the farm, hanging out as a family, enjoying the little things.
“It’s great,” David says, smiling.
“We’re ready to fly,” Kris says. She never left the hospital or David’s side once in those 10 weeks. “I wasn’t going to go anywhere.”
She looks at her husband and their life ahead as a gift.
She looks at the lungs inside her husband the same way. The Starners will be reaching out with a letter of thanks to the donor family. They would love to meet them some day.
“That’s a huge gift they gave us,” Kris says with tears in her eyes. “A huge gift.”
-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Benbow via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.