Able to breathe again

By: By Arielle Williams - McLeod Health Cheraw
Contributed photo Fred Kristensen smiles in the cockpit of a plane following a lung transplant.

CHERAW, S.C. — Growing up on a farm in Norway, Fred Kristensen enjoyed caring for animals throughout his childhood and into his early adult years.

However, he believes that exposure to dust and mold on the farm resulted in a bacteria settling in his lungs that would ultimately contribute to his need for a lung transplant.

Kristensen added that his lungs were also damaged from smoking for 10 years. He quit in 2006, but after a few years, he began to exhibit symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which started to affect his overall quality of life. Kristensen experienced shortness of breath after walking up stairs or doing other tasks.

“You begin to accept it as being normal over time,” he said. “The severity of my condition did not hit me until about a year ago, when I went to the doctor about my difficulty breathing.”

Kristensen’s physician prescribed an inhaler which temporarily improved his breathing for a while, but he noticed a significant drop in his ability to breathe well after taking an immune-suppressing medication for psoriasis, a condition that results in itchy, red scaly patches on the skin. He believes the medication allowed the dormant bacteria in his lungs from his days on the farm to grow at a rapid rate, producing an immediate effect on his lungs.

“There was no hope for my lungs and the only long-term option was a lung transplant,” he said. “I literally could not go out and run errands, wash the car, or travel to the store without using a whole tank of oxygen.

“My pulmonologist wrote a referral for pulmonary rehabilitation to help improve my lung function and to condition me for the possibility of a lung transplant,” Kristensen said. “I visited several facilities that offered pulmonary rehabilitation programs in the region and found the one that best suited my unique physical, emotional and financial needs at McLeod Health Cheraw.”

A resident of Hartsville, South Carolina, Kristensen was so impressed by the McLeod Pulmonary Rehabilitation program that he made the drive to Cheraw three days a week for more than a year in preparation for his lung transplant. Sonny Usher, RN, director of McLeod Pulmonary Rehabilitation Cheraw, and his staff helped guide Kristensen through the program.

“He was using six liters of oxygen a day when he first came to us, which is a higher flow of oxygen. By participating in the pulmonary rehabilitation program he was able to decrease his daily intake of oxygen to only two liters at a very low flow of oxygen,” said Usher.

Based on the condition of a patient’s lungs, a more continuous flow of oxygen may be needed to breathe regularly. As Kristensen improved, his air flow was changed to pulse flow which is delivered when he takes a breath or inhales. He also went from having his battery pack or canister of oxygen that previously only lasted an hour to it providing for him all day.

“As long as I grabbed my portable bag of pulse dose oxygen, I was fine. I also did not have to worry about chargers or extra canisters, which was great,” said Kristensen. “Sonny’s team worked with me and helped prepare my body for the lung transplant.”

Kristensen’s physician wrote a letter to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston recommending him for the lung transplant program. They accepted Kristensen based on the results he achieved from McLeod Pulmonary Rehabilitation Cheraw.

He began the year-long process of monthly tests and monitoring required of candidates for a transplant.

“The transplant team is very strict on their standards for transplant recipients because they want to be sure that the person who receives the donor organ is dedicated to taking care of themselves and will cherish the gift that they have received,” said Kristensen.

“I finally received the call that they had a donor lung for me, and I drove to Charleston for the surgery,” he continued. “The surgeon who performed my transplant told me that I was the first one of his transplant patients to drive themselves to the hospital. They are accustomed to lung transplant patients coming in wheelchairs with several canisters of oxygen, but I was the exact opposite. Because of Sonny and the McLeod Pulmonary Rehab team, I was properly conditioned and ready to receive my new lung.”

Two hours after his transplant surgery, Kristensen recalls that the staff removed the oxygen tank because he was breathing on his own. After about a week, he checked into a local hotel room within 10 miles of the hospital, which is usually required of transplant patients for a period of three months. According to Kristensen, he was allowed to go home early after six weeks because he was doing so well.

“After being released to return home, I was supposed to have follow-up appointments once a week in Charleston, but they eventually changed them to once a month,” he said. “Now, I only have to go every two months for my check-ups with the transplant team.”

In addition toUsher, Kristensen also worked with Kathryn McLain, RN, in Pulmonary Rehabilitation at McLeod Health Cheraw.

“Fred has worked very hard to be where he is today,” she said. “He followed the advice and teaching of his medical team word for word, and he has been very proactive in his own care, researching his diagnosis, medications and asking lots of questions.

“One of my favorite ‘Fred Stories’ was when he sent me a picture of himself on the big bridge in Charleston, McLain recalled. “The picture was taken after his lung transplant, and he captioned it with ‘just finished three miles.’ He had a big smile on his face and even though he had on a protective respiratory mask, I could see his round rosy Norwegian cheeks shining in the sun.

“I thought to myself, ‘Three miles, two to three months after a lung transplant is amazing.’ I know young adults with two good lungs and no health issues that cannot do that,” she continued. “Fred put in the hard work and now he is reaping the benefits of that. He no longer has to carry an oxygen tank everywhere he goes, and he is back doing what he loves most in the world — being a pilot and flying through the skies as free as a bird.”

Kristensen currently exercises three days a week for an hour each session. He sets his own pace and his entire workout is monitored for safety by the McLeod Pulmonary Rehabilitation Team.

“We do not hold him back if it can be done safely,” said Usher. “We keep a close watch on him, as with all of our patients, and encourage him to grow even stronger.”

Kristensen is grateful for his second chance at life, and has returned to what he loves most: flying. He has worked as a pilot in the private sector in Society Hill, South Carolina, for 33 years and previously served as a pilot in the military.

“I am excited about being back in the pilot’s seat where I belong,” he said with a grin.

Persistence, patience, and a positive attitude are crucial to success in this program, according to Usher.

“Fred never showed any distress during his rehabilitation, not even once,” Usher said. “He has remained optimistic from the time he started our program, and he continues to persevere.”

Kristensen attributes his positive outlook on life to his military background as a pilot. For him, there is no such thing as giving up against obstacles that may come his way.

“I am not a quitter,” he added. “I might back off or take another route, but I will never give up. I have to treasure this new lease on life I’ve been given.”

Arielle Williams is director of marketing and public information and outreach coordinator for McLeod Health Cheraw.

Contributed photo Fred Kristensen smiles in the cockpit of a plane following a lung transplant. photo Fred Kristensen smiles in the cockpit of a plane following a lung transplant.
Pilot returns to the air following lung transplant

By Arielle Williams

McLeod Health Cheraw