Lung transplant gives Bellevue man "second chance at life"

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BELLEVUE, Neb. -- Dan Gerdes is a mellow guy.

"I just like to cook and I don't know, play a little bit of guitar for fun," Gerdes said.

The 27-year-old can often be found cooking up a masterpiece in his kitchen in Bellevue. Outside the kitchen, though, Gerdes' job has turned into a hobby.

"There's just a good farmer's market community up here in Omaha," Gerdes said. "I really enjoy it a lot."

On his family farm near Johnson, Gerdes raises chicken and ducks, taking eggs from farm to table and selling them at the Village Pointe Farmers Market.

A couple of years ago, Gerdes' work on the farm started to become too much.

"I would just be gasping for breath," Gerdes said. "I couldn't do it. My chores were extremely hard to lift the feed that I needed to feed the animals."

That's because Gerdes has cystic fibrosis. It's a life-threatening genetic disorder that damages the lungs and digestive system. He was diagnosed when he was just three-months old.

"As he was a kid, he was very active," Gerdes' Cousin, Tia Miller, said. "He did a lot of the same things that his friends did, sports, was just very active as a child."

As Gerdes reached high school, his health really started to decline.

"I wound up having to be on a lot of oxygen because I just, my body wasn't getting the oxygen that it needed through my lungs regularly because it was just blocked up with mucus," Gerdes said.

Life became much more challenging for the 27-year-old. His lungs had failed and he lacked energy.

"It was painful for him, every deep breath," Miller said.

"It was very stressful because at that point you just really realize exactly how serious it was," Gerdes' Mother, Deb Wilson, said. "You know that, this, you're not messing around. I mean, it's life or death time."

In 2013, Gerdes went to Denver, where doctors evaluated him for a lung transplant. They told him he was too healthy to qualify.

"It was pretty vital," Gerdes said. "I was in a pretty bad place."

He said his rejection in Denver was later realized as a blessing.

"Dan was, he's kind of one of our special cases because he has been part of our cystic fibrosis team [at Nebraska Medicine] for pretty much his whole life," Lung Transplant Nurse Coordinator Bobbi Heffelfinger said.

In January, a lung transplant program opened up at Nebraska Medicine, where a team there has cared for Gerdes since his diagnosis. In August, Gerdes underwent more evaluations to see if he could finally qualify for a transplant.

"It's based on disease, it's based on his heart catheterization, his creatinine so his kidney function, his liver function," Heffelfinger said.

After going through a strenuous week of tests and procedures, the transplant team would deliberate and Gerdes would wait.

"They told me on Aug. 4 that I was going to be listed for a transplant and actually, Aug. 4 was my birthday so that was pretty special," Gerdes said.

Thinking the chance for new lungs would come in a few months, maybe even a year, Gerdes returned to his daily routine. Much to his surprise, his phone rang five days later.

"I think it was 11:43 in the morning," Gerdes said. "I was actually just stepping in my car to do an egg delivery for my farm and I get a phone call and she says, 'Dan,' and I says 'Yeah?' and she said 'Um, would you like to have a new set of lungs?'"

By 9:00 that night, Gerdes was in surgery getting the lung transplant he was listed for five days prior.

"I was just really calm and if it didn't work out I was fine with that too, but I knew that it would work out," Gerdes said. "It was just a really special situation."

"The surgery is about 10 to 12 hours," Heffelfinger said. "We get him all prepped and stuff and then our retrieving surgeon is at the other end of where the donor is, getting that donor ready for, getting the lungs ready to come back here."

After his transplant, Gerdes spent a couple days in the intensive care unit. He was only Nebraska Medicine's fifth lung transplant and his nurse said he was the fastest to be discharged.

"I've really been pushing myself the whole way," Gerdes said.

Still, though, he has a long road ahead.

"After transplant it's a 12 week kind of, we tell patients it's going to be a full time job for 12 weeks," Heffelfinger said. "Your job is to come to the hospital and to recover, so Dan comes every morning to pulmonary rehab at 8 a.m."

There, Gerdes walks, rides a bike and if he had it his way, he would run, too.

"I can't run because they don't want me to injure the incision site," Gerdes said.

At pulmonary rehab, nurses also monitor his heart rate and blood pressure.

"He's wanting to go, go, go," Heffelfinger said. "Which is great, but we also want him to recover."

Gerdes' daily life will also change. He'll have to take medication so his body won't reject his new lungs.

"It's kind of like trading one disease for another, because I take a lot of medicines now that I didn't have to take before," Gerdes said. "There's a lot of risks now that I didn't have before, but it's kind of a risk that's worth it."

Gerdes will also have to quit his job on his family farm to avoid getting sick. However, his health has already made great strides.

"I can just walk forever," Gerdes said. "I don't lose breath at all. It's amazing."

"Dan is always at least three steps ahead of me and I'm just walking as fast as I can just to keep up with him and that is a fabulous feeling," Gerdes' Mother, Deb Wilson said.

While he will always have cystic fibrosis, Gerdes' lung won't be affected by the disease. That freedom has given him a new perspective on living life.

"Just really a different person," Gerdes said. "I'm more confident, I'm a more happy person, I'm more driven. It's really changed a lot in me."

Yet, he knows the gift he received is another family's loss.

"I just really want to thank them," Gerdes said. "There's no way I can possibly thank them enough. They've given me a second chance at life and yeah, just thank you so much."

"It's crazy to think about the fact that he has someone else's lungs in his body," Gerdes' cousin, Tia Miller said. "Some other family gave the most incredible gift to us and it's just amazing to think about."

Gerdes is planning to write a letter to the donor's family, but has to wait a year. There's no telling if the family will want to reach back out.

Meanwhile, in the days ahead, Gerdes is focused on his recovery and living life to the fullest in what he and his family call a real second chance.

"It is his second chance and it's our second chance to really enjoy Dan and we're so grateful," Wilson said.

"Life wasn't headed anywhere at all before now and now I can do anything I think," Gerdes said.

If you would like to help Gerdes and his family cover medical expenses,
click here.