Whether driving tanks during the Vietnam War or cruising down the highway on his Harley Davidson, Charlie Bell liked moving forward.
That is, until the day he could hardly move at all. With his lungs severely damaged by disease, he struggled even to walk across the room.
His only hope was a new set of lungs.
Fortunately, he received that gift in a transplant surgery at Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.
He received his new lungs Nov. 10, 2018—one day before Veterans Day.
“That was a nice touch,” said Charlie, a proud Army veteran who served in Vietnam.
“I am forever grateful to the donor and the donor’s family,” he added. “When I first got through this, people would ask me what they could do for me. This was my reply: Be an organ donor.”
‘I was fortunate’
For most of his life, Charlie had no inkling that lung disease—or a transplant—lay in his future.
He grew up in Portage, Michigan, and after high school began to work at a heating and cooling company. At 19, he was drafted into the Army.
He trained at Fort Knox and Fort Carson, becoming a tank commander, and then headed to Vietnam in 1970. He stayed 11 months and five days.
He looks back with gratitude that he avoided serious injury during the war.
One day, as he led a convoy during the rainy season, a tank coming the other direction rolled over a mine. The blast sent a small shrapnel fragment into Charlie’s forehead, just above his left eye.
“I never reported it. There were just a couple of trickles of blood,” he said. “But I was fortunate. If it had been another inch lower, I would probably have lost my eye.”
After leaving the Army in 1971, Charlie moved back to Portage, where he and his wife, Krista, raised four children.
He worked at the paper mill and later for Pfizer. He got a degree in electronics and developed a specialty working with instrumentation.
His job involved fixing “anything that controls part of a machine,” he said. “I was the person you called when something didn’t work.”
After his wife’s death in 2004, Charlie returned to an old hobby—riding motorcycles.
Six years later, he met Cindy Bondurant over coffee at a Barnes and Noble store. Together, they rode his Harley throughout Michigan, to visit her family in Kansas and to Niagara Falls and upstate New York.
They loved being out in the open air, feeling close to the sights and smells of the countryside as they rode.
“There’s nothing like riding through a tunnel of trees in the fall when the leaves are changing,” Charlie said.
“You’re not just looking through a car window,” Cindy said. “You feel more a part of what you are going through.”
A wait for new lungs
For all Charlie’s mechanical aptitude and experience, there was one thing he could not fix—his lungs.
He noticed the first signs of trouble in 2013 when he developed an odd cough. A year later, he became alarmed while mowing the yard one day. He just couldn’t catch his breath.
Charlie went to his primary care doctor, who referred him to a pulmonologist. The specialist diagnosed him with pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that causes scarring in the lungs.
As the fibrosis thickened the tissue around the air sacs in his lungs, it became increasingly difficult to get oxygen to his bloodstream.
Charlie began to use supplemental oxygen at night and during physical activities. He and Cindy sold their quad-level house—where he had to climb stairs multiple times a day—and moved to an apartment on a single floor.
As his symptoms grew worse, Charlie gave up driving. He went on oxygen 24 hours a day.
“In the year before the transplant, it was a more rapid decline, to the point where he was in a wheelchair because he couldn’t walk and breathe at the same time,” Cindy said.
When he looked into a transplant, he learned one program would not accept patients older than 65. Charlie was 69.
He turned to the Spectrum Health Richard DeVos Heart and Lung Transplant Program. The transplant team does not have a firm age cut-off, but rather evaluates patients “on a case-by-case basis,” said Ryan Hadley, MD, Charlie’s pulmonologist.
“Our outcomes are good so we can take on higher-risk patients,” Dr. Hadley said.
Spectrum Health’s one-year survival rate of 98% for lung transplants is among the top five of the 74 programs in the country, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients.
The Spectrum Health transplant team evaluated Charlie and approved him for the national registry for lung transplant in November 2018.
Just a few days later, Charlie’s health grew even worse. He called his medical team and said he had turned his home oxygen unit up as high as it would go, and still it did not deliver enough oxygen.
His doctors urged him to stay at the Spectrum Health Meijer Heart Center, where he could be on a higher oxygen level while waiting for new lungs.
“It can get to the point where your lungs are so bad you can’t exercise effectively,” Dr. Hadley said. “If your muscles start to atrophy, then you’re not a candidate for lung transplant.”
Charlie recalled the day he went to the hospital: “They told me I would be going home with a new set of lungs or I wouldn’t be going home at all.
“I got extremely lucky. I waited only two days.”
On a Friday afternoon, transplant coordinator Jenee Carney, RN, visited Charlie in his hospital room.
Charlie reminded her it was Veteran’s day weekend. He told her his wish for the holiday: to receive new lungs.
Just a couple of hours later, she returned to tell him the program had accepted a pair of donor lungs for him.
“He just broke down in tears,” Carney said. “He couldn’t believe it.”
Edward Murphy, MD, the surgical program director for lung transplantation, stopped by Charlie’s room that evening before surgery.
“He said, ‘Your lungs are here. I’ve seen them. They’re perfect,’” Charlie recalled.
The news sent Charlie and Cindy through a wide range of emotions: “Gratitude, happiness, terror—you go through the whole thing,” Cindy said.
“What could you do but say, ‘Thank God,’” Charlie said.
More than a year post-transplant, Charlie can measure his progress in pulmonary rehab, where he walks 20-minute stints on the treadmill.
A year ago, he couldn’t walk for 20 seconds.
He has the energy to enjoy time with Cindy and their families, which include his four children and seven grandchildren plus her two children and three grandchildren.
Recently, he walked to the park across the street to watch the grandkids play on the swings and zip down the slide.
“You have to stop and think of where I was a year ago,” he said.
Today, he said, “I can do everything I used to do before.”
Seeing Charlie’s recovery is rewarding for Dr. Hadley and the transplant team.
“Overall it’s an excellent outcome,” Dr. Hadley said. “It’s just a huge change from being on death’s doorstep to going back to a normal life.”