Every breath is a gift to Mark Pettigrew.
The 62-year-old Burlington resident received a double lung transplant at Toronto General Hospital on Sept. 26 and just eight weeks later, he says he can finally breathe again.
Pettigrew sat in his mother’s house, where he is living temporarily, wearing brand new New Balance running shoes and matching track pants, attire he could not have used just months before.
“I would be out of breath on oxygen,” said the father of two. “It’s an out of breath like suffocation. Like when you can’t get air, as if somebody’s got a pillow over your face.”
Now he enjoys going for long walks in the crisp fall air, going to physiotherapy three times a week and exercising every day. While stairs are still difficult for him, he appreciates every breath he takes.
“It’s given me a whole new life. Somebody has given me a whole new life and they’re with me. A piece of them is right in my chest,” he said, pointing to his lungs. “And I’m breathing in the air that is keeping me alive with their lungs. What can you say?”
Fifteen years ago, Pettigrew began to notice something was wrong. He was losing weight, he was short of breath and he had a chronic cough.
Pettigrew admits that his lifestyle didn’t help matters. When he was younger, he was a heavy smoker, he worked at a dusty gravel pit and hung out with bands in smoky bars, burning the candle at both ends.
He quit smoking and two years later, went to the doctor.
He was diagnosed with Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a genetic disorder where the body doesn’t produce a protein that protects the lungs and liver. Over time, this can cause permanent lung damage.
Pettigrew said by then, the damage had already been done.
He was told he would eventually need a lung transplant.
“And so my life went as far as the transplant. As far as my future was concerned, get to the transplant,” he said. “This wall is put in front of you and that’s all that counts because if you dont get the transplant, you’re not going to live. You’re going to die. That’s it.”
As time went on, Pettigrew’s lung function continued to deteriorate to the point where it was a struggle just to get out of bed.
“You have to plan every move that you make. And I mean every move, like brushing your teeth,” he said.
After the transplant, Pettigrew said he was overcome with emotion.
“So you get it and you come through the other side and after a few days start feeling pretty good and all of a sudden you realize, ‘Whoa, I can start planning a future.’ Doing things that I want to do. Life just opens right up,” he said.
“I had tears in my eyes. I just cried at how amazing this is. Here I am breathing like this.”
Pettigrew said he can’t express how thankful he is to his donor and the donor’s family for giving him a second chance at life.
“I’ll tell you I’m trying to come up with that. I’m a bit of songwriter and I’m working on that,” he said. “I just don’t know how to say it.”
Ronnie Gavsie, president and CEO of Trillium Life Network, hopes there can be more stories like Pettigrew’s, however, she noted only 22 per cent of eligible organ donors in Ontario have registered.
“That is a really low number and we have a large number of people always on the waiting list for a life saving transplant,” she said.
There are currently 1,376 people on the organ transplant waiting list in Ontario.
Gavsie suspects there are people out there who think they are registered donors but actually are not.
She said people who have signed donor cards in the last decade are not necessarily registered donors. The only way people can ensure they are officially registered organ donors is by registering online at www.beadonor.ca.
Gavsie said one donor can save the lives of up to eight people through organ donation including the heart, the lungs, two kidneys, the pancreas and the small bowel. That same person can also enhance the lives of 75 people through tissue donation including corneas, skin, bone and heart valves.
“Just the act of registering gives some hope to the people on the waiting list,” she said. “It tells them that people care and would help them if they could.”
Gavsie did congratulate Burlington for being above the provincial average, with 29 per cent of the population registered as organ donors.
“I’m certainly thankful,” said Pettigrew, “and I certainly feel for the family that lost somebody.”
Now, Pettigrew is looking forward to making plans. He is working to get strong enough to travel south to Mexico, where he likes to spend the winters in a town called Barra De Navidad.
But first he’s hoping to move out of his mother’s house and back into his own home once he is able to tackle stairs comfortably.
“There’s about five or six stairs I have to climb to get into the kitchen,” he said. “When I can climb those stairs in winter clothes carrying groceries, I’m gone.”
For more information about becoming an organ donor, visit www.beadonor.ca. For more information about Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency or to read Mark Pettigrew’s personal account of his story, visit www.alpha1canada.ca.