Lung Transplant: Robert Blackwell

Livonia, MI

Living donor liver patients Arnulfo and Jason

Lung diseases weren’t foreign to Robert. His mom had died of emphysema, and his sister and brother both suffered with COPD. He had undergone lung reduction surgery in 1995 and 1997 because of blebs, small collections of air between the lung and its outer surface that can rupture and cause the lung to collapse.

Through it all, Robert worked for 31 years at the Ford Motor Company. Shortness of breath while on the job motivated Robert see his pulmonologist, who determined that he required supplemental oxygen 24/7 and that he should see Lisa Allenspach, M.D. at Henry Ford Transplant for a lung transplant evaluation.

For eight long years, Robert and his family attended a lung transplant support group and waited patiently for the call that would mean new lungs were available. Robert did his best during those years to live life as fully as possible. He recalls, “I ran my oxygen tube out the window and climbed on the roof to clean my gutters. I tried to make everything funny… They gave us a beeper that would go off if lungs were available. So, for the first three years on April 1st, I’d call the beeper and send my wife into a tizzy!”

Finally, one night Robert and wife Cheri were watching TV when her phone rang, and it was Robert’s transplant coordinator. A pair of lungs were available. When asked if they could be at Henry Ford Hospital in an hour, Robert responded “We can be there in 15 minutes!” The coordinator then suggested maybe Robert shouldn’t drive… But he did.

Once in surgery, it was determined that Robert’s right lung had migrated across his chest cavity and was adhered over his heart. With the help of a heart-lung machine, surgeons were able to remove his existing lungs and connect the new set in his chest. Always a step ahead, Robert came out of anesthesia early, was removed from the ventilator early and was up walking around the next day.

Five weeks of recovery included the holidays, “We celebrated Christmas there. We celebrated New Year’s there. The staff was remarkable.” Robert recalls, “Before my transplant, I could never catch my breath in the winter. I got home in January, and I just sat in my truck breathing for half an hour thinking ‘this is the best thing ever! Amazing, simply amazing.”

Now, Robert and Cherie are back to doing all the things they love. Including showing their ’66 Pontiac GTO and their ’72 Chevy Camaro. “My first car show after the transplant was about six months after surgery. I walked five miles that day with no oxygen!” Robert is also excited to vacation again, climb the stairs at Little Caesar’s Arena for Red Wings games and even loves snow blowing, “After my transplant, I was snow-blowing crazy! I was doing the neighbor’s house, down to the corner, as much as I could as often as I could.”

Almost simultaneously, Robert and Cherie had the same idea… To write a thank-you letter to the family of Robert’s lung donor. Through Gift of Life Michigan, they were able to get those letters delivered and within a month received a reply. Nine months later, the families met first on a phone call, “We talked for an hour and a half, like we’d known them all our lives.” Robert comments. “We met in person soon after. I took a stethoscope so the family could hear their loved one’s lungs breathing inside me.” Now, the two families gather and bowl together every Sunday, and even do some holidays together.

“It’s crazy… I wake up every morning and I just can’t believe there’s someone inside me helping me live.”

Robert muses, “It’s crazy… I wake up every morning and I just can’t believe there’s someone inside me helping me live.”

Robert is also close to his Henry Ford family, attending regular lung transplant support group meetings led by transplant psychologist Kelly Bryce, Ph.D. Cherie helps maintain email lists for the group and Robert shares stories and mentors recent and future transplant recipients.

To share their story and encourage others, Cherie has also written a book, “An Unknown Angel’s Gift: A Couple’s Lung Transplant Journey.” You may run into it at your local bookstore, or even run into Robert and Cherie signing copies around Metro Detroit.

Asked his advice for someone needing a lung transplant, Robert shares, “Trust your faith, work out as much as possible, stay healthy and go to Henry Ford for your lung transplant evaluation.”

Take the next step

Speak with a Transplant specialist.


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