Eight years ago, Michael Hotchkiss’ 52-year-old brother died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a chronic lung disease that causes scar tissue to build up in the lungs.
In 2020, doctors diagnosed Hotchkiss with the same disease.
“I’m a very positive person,” Hotchkiss said. “So when my son-in-law told me that’s what my brother had, it hadn’t really hit me that this is eventually going to end my life.”
He tried to steel his mind for that possibility. “It’s hard to imagine something taking your life,” he said.
But science and medicine would have other plans.
On March 23, 2021, Hotchkiss received a lifesaving gift that, to this day, he still can’t completely comprehend—a double lung transplant.
“I took these lungs for my brother and myself,” he said.
‘Grateful, beyond words’
Hotchkiss, 64, of Traverse City, Michigan, began experiencing symptoms years ago. They came on subtly.
Shortness of breath while working as a painter. Then, even worse shortness of breath one day while playing racquetball. That time, he drove to a hospital parking lot and waited until his heart slowed to normal.
He never went in, but he remembers that feeling.
“I had some signs of lung issues, but I kept pushing myself,” Hotchkiss said.
Eventually, he told his doctor about the symptoms. A chest X-ray revealed scar tissue on his lungs.
The doctor diagnosed him with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and suggested he consider a lung transplant.
A month later, Hotchkiss called the doctor again with a desire to pursue a transplant. He received a referral to the Spectrum Health Richard DeVos Heart and Lung Transplant Program.
In February, Hotchkiss and his wife, Cari, traveled to Grand Rapids for days of testing and to meet members of the lung transplant team.
“I can’t tell you how organized the team is,” Hotchkiss said. “You didn’t worry. They sent someone with you everywhere. They put me at ease.”
Soon after that, he learned he had indeed become a candidate for a double lung transplant. Doctors added his name to the list.
On March 22, as he and his wife enjoyed an evening at home, the phone rang.
A call from Grand Rapids. Spectrum Health. They had lungs for him.
Hotchkiss’ wife remembers her husband turning white as a ghost.
“My legs were shaking so bad I didn’t know if I was going to be able to stand,” Hotchkiss said. “It had been nine days. I was expecting to wait six months to a year.”
They packed their bags and arrived at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital at 11:30 p.m.
“I wasn’t nervous once I got there,” he said.
At one point, a health team notified his wife and daughter the lungs had arrived. They went down, watched medical personnel take them out of the van and took pictures.
“It’s such a gift,” Hotchkiss said.
He would become the 231st person to receive a lung transplant at Spectrum Health.
Dr. Murphy has been part of the lung transplant program at Spectrum Health since it began in 2013.
“It’s always amazing, the idea that we can take lungs from a donor and then they can be preserved and travel—sometimes across the country—and then be transplanted,” Dr. Murphy said. “It’s remarkable that the lungs can endure such a thing. And it’s also phenomenal how transformative it is for the recipient.”
Many transplant patients who struggle to breathe before surgery will feel better immediately after the transplant. Within months, they are able to return to physical activity that they had been unable to enjoy for years.
“They are some of the most grateful patients ever, because shortness of breath is a very debilitating symptom. Now they can breathe and get their life back,” Dr. Murphy said. “It’s a pretty wonderful thing to be a part of.”
Hotchkiss feels this way.
“The first four days after my transplant, I did nothing but cry,” he said. “It was excitement, but also grief for the family that lost their loved one.
“There’s a joy and sorrow at the same time. I have many, many thanks for the family. I am very, very grateful, beyond words. It’s a gift.”
Hotchkiss was breathing on his own and off the ventilator on the first day after surgery. Twelve days later, he and his wife then moved to the Spectrum Health Renucci Hospitality House while he recovered further.
‘Everything fell in place’
Six weeks after the transplant, Hotchkiss returned home.
He’s now walking up to three miles per day and riding his bicycle. He’s looking forward to being cleared to mow the lawn. He’s also back to lifting weights and playing with his dog in the yard.
The reality of it all still has not sunk in.
“Still to this day it’s hard for me to understand that I went through a double lung transplant,” he said. “Everything fell in place. I choose not to believe that it’s luck. I believe it’s divine intervention. I look at it that way.”
Meanwhile, the transplant team continues its work. The program performed its 250th lung transplant this summer.
“We’re very appreciative that patients like Mr. Hotchkiss place their trust in us,” Dr. Murphy said. “We have a tight, very conscientious team and patients routinely have the kind of response that he did. We’re very proud of that.”