LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — London resident Mike Hamm knew he was in bad physical health.
Last year, he was diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), a condition in which the lungs harden and do not expand. The condition caused Hamm to be “short winded” because when the lungs could not expand, he could not take in oxygen as he should.
“The right side of the heart pumps in the oxygenated blood and the left side sends it out into the body,” Hamm said. “I wasn’t getting the oxygen in to pump it back out.”
Hamm was placed on medication, which “helped some,” but he underwent a steady decline. Last November, his condition took a serious leap for the worse.
“I fell over a cliff,” he said as he described his sudden decline. “I had to sit down to brush my teeth and I had to take a wheelchair from the bedroom to the bathroom. I was out of breath all the time.”
He went to Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville on two occasions, on the recommendation of his friend, Johnny Watkins, who was a double lung recipient several years ago. But Vanderbilt was not in the medical network coverage on Hamm’s insurance, so he began seeing specialists at Louisville’s Jewish Hospital instead.
“I went on November 25 and the nurse there said she would do testing immediately. She called the next day,” Hamm related. “They did a heart catherization, Cat scans, breathing tests, blood work — everything. That was on Wednesday.”
His test results were good but he was told to come back to Louisville on Monday to see if he was approved for the transplant list.
“Halfway home, she called to say I was approved,” he said. “I went on the (organ recipient) list December 9.”
Less than 24 hours later, Hamm received a call that a lung was available and that he needed to return to Louisville immediately.
“The nurse said she would give me a little time to think about it and talk to my family,” he said. “But I told my wife it was like, ‘Here’s a ticket to Heaven but tell me in 30 minutes if you want it or not.’ I think God’s hand was on it.”
Hamm returned to Jewish Hospital in Louisville the next day, and had a double lung transplant on December 11. He spent 13 days hospitalized before coming home on December 23. He said Christmas Eve was good, but described Christmas Day as “bad, and the night was worse.”
He went back to Louisville, where it was discovered he had fluid on his lungs and a packet of blood behind his left lung. His sternum, where the chest bones were broken to do the transplant — and where he had 66 staples — was also not healing as they should.
“They went back in and fixed it all in 30 minutes and I would be on medications for three months,” Hamm explained. “I went in and stayed eight to 10 days, and things got better.”
Hamm said the nurse at Jewish Hospital told him her first impression of him was not optimistic.
“She told me she didn’t know when she saw me on November 25 if I would be around on December 25,” he said. “I told her I didn’t think I would have lasted over a couple of weeks. It’s been like a miracle. I quit all oxygen while I was in the hospital.”
Besides the will of God, the Trust for Life program that encourages organ donations is what Hamm credits for saving his life. He explained that organ donors are not randomly selected and those wishing to donate their organs and tissues must be legally declared deceased. The organs and tissues are then sent out to recipients. The donor from whom Hamm received his new lungs were flown in from Louisiana.
Hamm’s new lease on life is something he isn’t taking for granted. He recently stepped down from his position at Lykins Oil, where his two sons will carry on. He is a familiar face as a former chair of the Cumberland Valley Area District Development as well as a community leader.
His story of survival will be one of those featured in the Trust for Life magazine that highlights organ and tissue recipients across the state. Shelley Snyder, executive director of the Kentucky Circuit Clerks Association’s Trust for Life, was recently in London to hear Hamm’s story. The annual publication features organ recipients from each of Kentucky’s 120 counties.
“Last year, Laurel County residents donated $8,538 to the Trust for Life and 1,573 joined the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry,” said Roger Schott, Laurel circuit clerk. “Now 40 percent of Laurel County residents are registered donors. I am proud of the generosity of our community and appreciate your support of this life-saving program.”
An estimated 900 Kentuckians are currently on the organ donor list. Last year, 299 persons received a life-saving organ transplant and hundreds more received tissue or cornea transplants through the Kentucky Organ Donor Registry. Nationwide, more than 120,000 people are waiting for that life-saving organ transplant.