Life, one breath at a time
Henrico man recovering after second double-lung transplant
At age 28, Chad Southward has already wiped out two pairs of lungs, survived two catastrophic illnesses, and endured two life-saving surgeries with lengthy recoveries.
And he’s got the medical bills to show for it.
What’s more, he’s been cheated out of the newfound career he loves – one that might have helped him pay off some of those bills.
But you won’t hear him complaining. Southward is grateful for every breath.
A month after his second double lung transplant on Nov. 13, Southward’s days at Duke University Medical Center were a dizzying round of clinic visits and rehab appointments.
“Pulmonary, x-rays, bloodwork, blood gases, breathing tests, infectious disease, eye doctors, diabetes docs, bronchs and GI studies,” he recounted in a blog.
Yet, he added, “I could not ask for things to be going better. I feel amazing.
“I am walking a mile and more in 30 minutes. I am walking, biking, and lifting weights every day.”
The repeat transplant became necessary after Southward’s first set of transplanted lungs began to fail, following a triple onslaught of respiratory illnesses.
In 2009, while a teacher at Stonewall Jackson M.S. in Hanover, he went to school one day feeling under the weather. Within an hour or two, his students began to ask if he was okay.
He wasn’t. He had pneumonia, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and ended up being airlifted to University of Virginia Medical Center.
And the two-year wait for a new set of lungs began.
One month before his third birthday Chad Southward was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, and his parents – who had never heard of the disease – learned that the celebration might be his last.
Having suffered from symptoms of severe asthma since birth, Southward was already in and out of the doctor’s office several times a week.
But now his parents were hearing what sounded like a death sentence. He had a particularly serious form of CF, a progressive disease that produces thick mucus -- hampering breathing and digestion and scarring the lungs.
Southward’s mother, Pat Franklin, recalls that she and her husband, Stuart, eventually adopted the attitude, “God knew we were good parents and would do whatever it took to be sure Chad had the best life possible.
“We knew that God had given us an angel.”
Southward’s parents have since divorced, but remain close friends – a fact that Southward says he cherishes.
“Having to be in hospitals my whole childhood made my parents always be together, whether they were officially married or not,” he says now. “I was the bond holding them to each other.”
His mother believes that CF also brought the three of them closer together as a family.
“We were blessed with more one-on-one time with Chad,” Franklin says. “He required chest PT three times a day, and during those times we talked about school, golf, his Little League baseball team, his friends, everything and anything that might be bothering him.”
Graduating from Varina H.S. in 2001, Southward went on to Hampden-Sydney College to study English.
At 18, he had already been told that he should get on a double lung transplant list.
“My lung function at that time was a reasonable 30 percent,” says Southward. “Three years later, when I finally received the long-awaited call for the transplant, I was living with 18 percent lung function.”
It was during that three-year wait for the first transplant that Southward says he hit his lowest point. He became so sick his junior year that the doctor advised him to transfer to Virginia Commonwealth University, to be closer to MCV. So Southward struggled through a semester at VCU – only to learn that he would not be able to take his exams at the hospital and complete the courses.
“I thought I’d done everything for nothing,” Southward says. “I wanted to give up. . . [until] Dad talked me out of it.”
Re-enrolling at HSC, Southward acknowledged that he might die before finishing the semester.
“But that’s where I wanted to be,” he says. “[At least I’d be] pursuing something, not just sitting home and giving up.”
When the call came that his new lungs were ready, Southward was visiting his friend and roommate, Shawn Shurm, at the river.
On his blog, he recalls that his mother began crying hysterically as soon as she saw the number appear on caller ID. “She was running around the house, throwing clothes into a suitcase,” Southward writes. “I learned later all she packed was two pairs of socks and 15 pairs of underwear.”
Of the operation, he acknowledges, he had it easy compared to his parents.
“I was asleep the whole time. I cannot imagine the stress of being awake all those 13 hours, not knowing if your child was going to live through a surgery most people would not survive.
“[In my parents minds] I guess I died and came back to life hundreds of times during that waiting room period of time.”
Southward’s mother contends that only twice did Chad truly scare his parents: during a 30-day hospital stay in his freshman year of college; and during the more recent bout of pneumonia, flu, and RSV.
“Within 24 hours [of the 2009 illness] he was on life support,”says Franklin. “I can truly say that was the only time when his dad and I thought we might not be bringing him home.”
‘I owe her a lot’
Since his November transplant, Southward has spent large parts of his days at the gym – on a regimen to exercise his new lungs – and playing with his dogs.
“They’ve definitely helped me these last two years,” he says of Ally and Dusty, recalling the pre-transplant days when he was on oxygen and needed a walker to move. “They keep me company; they’ve kept me going.”
He is also considering possibilities for his next career move, now that the doctors have nixed a return to teaching.
“Too many germs,” he says with a sad shrug. But he stays in touch with former students from Stonewall Jackson, and from the small private school where he taught earlier, via Facebook.
His surgery, new set of lungs, and medication all come with high price tags. But with the help of the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA), Southward’s family and friends are organizing fundraising events [see below] to offset the costs. Meanwhile, he faces follow-up stomach surgery this month -- and the bill for the transplant has yet to arrive.
Meanwhile, there’s another big event to prepare for: his June 25 wedding day.
Four years ago, he met fiancee Lauren Lacy online. The fourth grade teacher at Glen Lea E.S. has given him new motivation to make the most of this third chance at life.
“[After I met Lauren] I knew I wasn’t just here for me any more,” says Southward. “Lauren saved me in a way. She’s stuck around, and that’s something most people wouldn’t have done.
“I owe her a lot.”
‘Your loved one walks with me’
In addition to crediting his fiancee, his parents, and friends when it comes to motivation and inspiration, Southward is keenly aware that he owes his second and third chances at life to the donors who gave their lungs.
Several months after his first transplant, Southward wrote a letter to the family of the anonymous donor and told them he would soon graduate from college.
“Take my graduation,” he said, “as a moment both of us, me and my donor, walk across that stage to celebrate life.”
Noting that his Hampden-Sydney classmates called him “Iron Lungs,” and that he had never been able to walk across campus until his transplant, Southward told the donor family, “Every time I take a breath, your loved one takes a breath. Every time I take a step, your loved one walks with me.”
Southward’s own parents say that he is an inspiration to them as well.
“He is driven, goal-oriented, funny, loving, and caring,” says Franklin. “He touches people’s hearts whenever they meet him. Our friends, the doctors, nurses, everyone that he meets, they instantly fall in love with him.”
All in all, says Southward, having CF has given him a unique -- and breathtakingly positive -- outlook on life.
“It almost brings out the best in other people, people who hardly know you,” he points out, citing nurses, doctors, and fellow CF patients he has met. He is also still close to the teacher -- now a frequent dinner guest -- who visited him during the childhood hospital stays known as “tune-ups.”
“I had professors from Hampden-Sydney drive to MCV to give me lessons,” he says, adding that the college also made numerous concessions to his illness. “I could park anywhere; I could drive on the sidewalk. They even gave me a golf cart and a scooter.”
He laughs as he recalls the one stipulation that the campus police chief put on his use of the golf cart.
“He told me, ‘If I see it in Fraternity Circle, it’s mine!’”
And, Southward adds, “The president of Hampden-Sydney called me continuously after the [first] transplant to see how I was doing.”
“You really learn about the good of people,” muses Southward.
“CF gave me a lot more than it took away.”
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