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Breathing easier

Ryan McNeill -
Ryan McNeill
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Enumclaw resident recovering from double lung transplant

By Brenda Sexton

The Courier-Herald

Ryan McNeill is breathing easier now that he's had a double lung transplant.

"I feel a lot better, although I'm still weak," Ryan said from his Enumclaw home with wife Katie by his side.

McNeill was born with cystic fibrosis, a genetic life-threatening disease that affects the lungs, pancreas and liver. The median age of survival for a person with cystic fibrosis is in the mid-30s.

McNeill turned 31 in May.

"It didn't start affecting me until a few years ago," the 1992 Enumclaw High graduate said. "I had pneumonia, then an infection and then it got worse," McNeill explained. He'd been towing an oxygen tank around with him for some time. Katie, also an EHS graduate (1996), said the couple batted around the thought of a double lung transplant a year ago, but didn't see the urgency.

That was until May, when Ryan's lungs started collapsing on a regular basis.

"I was slowly getting worse and worse with the old lungs," he said.

Ryan jumped on the fast-track for testing at the Cystic Fibrosis Center at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. He went on the donor list July 5. By July 23, before he could get a pager, he was getting a set of lungs.

He said he was lucky.

"It was very intense," Katie said. "The surgery went incredibly well, but his old lungs were so full of pus it went into the blood stream and caused an infection."

Ryan spent 15 days, 12 more than expected, in the intensive care unit, but is home now and recovering.

"A lung transplant prolongs life, it's not a cure," said Dr. Mark Tonelli, associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington. "A patient will still have cystic fibrosis even though we've replaced the lungs."

Tonelli, who is Ryan's physician, said in the last several years double lung transplants outnumber those of single lungs, because for some conditions, like cystic fibrosis, there is no other option.

"It's not real common," he said. "We are one of the Top 10 in the United States who do this type of surgery and we do about 40 a year." The University of Washington Medical Center is the only facility in the five-state Pacific Northwest region that performs lung transplants.

Like any surgery, there are long-term survivors and those who don't last through surgery. According to Tonelli, approximately 50 percent of double lung transplant patients will live longer than five years. But, Tonelli said, he has patients who have been in the program 13 years since surgery.

"Survival has continued to get better with each passing year," Tonelli said.

He said the decision to go through with the surgery usually hinges on quality of life and improving life span.

Ryan and Katie are already seeing quality of life improvements for Ryan. They are hoping the transplant will help them gain back the lifestyle they remember. "A new lease on life," Katie calls it. They may even be able to go camping again. "It's the fastest they've seen someone get back to normal," she said.

Ryan anticipates returning to the office of the Bothell pharmaceutical company where he works within a few months. The company, he said, has been generous and been flexible with his surgery and recovery.

Katie's employer, a chiropractic office in Maple Valley, has given her unpaid time off to care for Ryan.

While they are both away from the job, the medical bills kept coming, so friends and family are planning a fund-raising event Sept. 10 at Orting High School.

Gariann LaVergne, a friend of the family, is organizing the fund-raising event. She said there wasn't a lot she could do from Ryan's hospital room, so with a cellphone in her hand she started orchestrating plans for a barbecue, auction and 3-on-3 basketball tournament the Orting High girls basketball team dreamed up.

LaVergne coaches the Orting High girls basketball team. Cheering on the Cardinals is a pastime for the McNeills. They attend as many of the games as possible. The girls were planning a fund-raiser for uniforms, but decided instead to turn it into a fund-raiser for Ryan. They brought in as number of friends and relatives and the Abundant Life Foursquare Church to help out.

Although Ryan is not expected to attend the event since air-quality is still an issue with his recovery, he said he'll be there in spirit.

"I'm very blessed and very fortunate," he said.

Brenda Sexton can be reached at bsexton@courierherald.com.

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