While Jim Blum was in the basement of their Kentwood, Michigan, home two summers ago, his wife, Laura, could hear him huffing and puffing from upstairs.
“She asked, ‘Are you working out down there?’” Blum recalled. “I said, ‘No, I’m trying to put my shoes on.’”
Blum had noticed a shortness of breath since a few months prior, but he considered it a fluke. He had hoped it would just go away.
But when his wife mistook his shoe-tying episode for a cardio workout, he knew it was time.
“I decided I better get it checked out,” he said.
In October 2014, the official diagnosis had a familial ring to it.
“That’s what my mother passed away from 20 years ago,” said Blum, 66. “It kind of takes your breath away when you get that diagnosis.”
Besides the breathing difficulties, Blum faced financial difficulties. He had no health insurance, and he wouldn’t be eligible for Medicare until the following August, on his 65th birthday.
“I had been downsized from my job a couple of years prior and was working part-time at different things,” Blum said.
An affordable chance
Timing and location worked to his favor.
At Spectrum Health, the care team told him about a new medicine being tested in clinical trials. It’s intended to delay the effects of pulmonary fibrosis, keeping lungs functioning at a higher capacity for a longer period.
“They had been testing it for a couple of years and wanted to expand the trial,” Blum said. “They asked if I’d be interested in participating.”
It was a serious stroke of luck, as Blum said he would have struggled to pay for treatment on his own.
“I said, ‘Sign me up,’” Blum said.
He joined the trial at the end of October 2014. At the time, he had a 24/7 supply of oxygen to assist his breathing.
“The goal was, if I could hang in there until August of 2015, then I could go on Medicare,” he said.
He hung in there.
In fall 2015, pulmonary disease and lung transplant specialist Reda Girgis, MD, at Spectrum Health Richard DeVos Heart & Lung Transplant Clinic, began testing to see if Blum qualified for the lung transplant list.
“They check you from stem to stern,” Blum said. “It’s pretty incredible what they do. I had two weeks of testing.”
The results were a bit of a Catch-22.
“The results came back that I was actually too healthy,” Blum said, laughing. “Isn’t that crazy? There’s certain criteria you have to meet. If I’m too healthy, more power to me.”
But the “too healthy” seal of approval didn’t last long.
In December 2015, Blum underwent a hip replacement.
By early 2016, Blum could feel his breath slipping away.
“Around the first of the year I could just feel things going downhill,” he said. “I wasn’t feeling as good. I was getting more winded.”
Making the list
Dr. Girgis ordered more tests. The results confirmed the downward spiral.
On April 8, a new name showed up on the lung transplant list: “James Blum.” Dr. Girgis told him it could take anywhere from two months to two years to find a suitable match.
“Eight days later I got the call,” Blum said. “I think it’s a God thing.”
On April 16, Blum arrived at the Richard DeVos Heart & Lung Transplant Center for pre-op procedures.
“When the lung is delivered to the hospital, the surgeons have to approve it,” Blum said. “They gave the go-ahead midnight that Saturday night to start the surgery.”
Blum still returns every couple of weeks for follow-up visits so Dr. Girgis can monitor his lung function and watch for signs of rejection.
He has labs drawn every week.
A big breakthrough came in August, when Dr. Girgis told him he no longer needed his oxygen tanks.
“I said ‘amen’ to that,” Blum said. “It was such a huge accomplishment not to have to wear that plastic mustache anymore. What a blessing that was. Most of the time, when they come to pick up oxygen tanks, it’s because somebody passed away. They told me it was nice for them to see somebody on the mend.”
Without the transplant, he may not have made it.
A close call
“He had severe and rapidly progressive pulmonary fibrosis with a poor prognosis,” Dr. Girgis said. “He is doing very well now and we expect his long-term prognosis to be very good, since he is now (several) months out from the transplant and has gotten past a lot of the critical, early post-operative issues.”
Dr. Girgis said Blum will continue to be monitored closely for complications. Part of this monitoring was initially done at the Spectrum Health Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program on Bradford Avenue, where Blum worked out every Tuesday and Thursday.
“He is an outstanding patient,” Dr. Girgis said. “He’s very compliant and knowledgeable and follows instructions religiously. He’s always pleasant and grateful. He’s really a pleasure to take care of.”
Blum is boomeranging back to normalcy, albeit slowly.
For the first few hours of the day, he feels like he can conquer the world.
“After the first three or four hours you’re just gassed and you can’t do anything,” he said. “Your brain says you ought to go 70 mph and your new lung says you should go 35. It’s been a challenge to tone it down. I like to be out and about and can’t sit still very long.”
The energy he does have he likes to spend watching his six grandsons play sports.
Discharged from the hospital on May 5, he was able to attend each of the boys’ games before their seasons ended.
“That felt so good to get out and watch them,” he said. “I feel like I wanted to be all better yesterday, but it doesn’t work that way.”
Lung share, ride share
Blum recently picked up another part-time job. One he says fits him well. He drives for a ride-share company called Lyft, which is similar to Uber.
“It’s really enjoyable,” he said. “You’re meeting different people all the time. After three or four rides, I’m pretty tired. The beauty is you can work as much or as little as you want to and it brings in some income. It’s really going to give us some breathing room financially.”
Blum said he and his wife, Laura, look back on the clinical trial as a lifesaver of sorts.
“It kept my lung function steady until I could get on Medicare,” he said. “It became a bridge for me to be able to get on the transplant list.”
Blum said without a transplant, he likely had three to six months left in this world.
All he knows is the donor was a male.
In October, he plans to write a letter to the Gift of Life program to pass on a request to the donor family that he’d like to make contact.
“I just want to say thank you for the gift of life their loved one gave me,” Blum said.